|The movie trailer is stark: A drug dealer is hauled out into a public square and shot to death by a plainclothes sicario (read: government-hired killer) wearing Aviators, a five o'clock shadow and a scowl.|
It's a hyperbolic scene in a movie whose tagline is "Revenge has a new name." But for star and screenwriter Manny Perez, it's rooted in a brutal reality set against the backdrop of crime, corruption and violence in his native Dominican Republic.
"A friend of mine who grew up with me, we both moved to the United States at the same time and went different paths," says Perez, who plays the sicario, Luisito. "My friend became a drug dealer, and I became an actor."
The friend's rap sheet got him deported back to his home country, where he was in out and out of prison until a government assassin made an example of him. Fifty bullet holes, a public corpse display and more than a decade later, Perez made a film to answer one question.
"Who is that man who killed my friend?" he says on the phone from Los Angeles. The independent movie will debut commercially in El Paso on Friday at Premiere Cinemas in Bassett Place Mall. Perez was in El Paso on Tuesday for a free screening and discussion at UTEP's Union Cinema.
Aside from several film premieres on both coasts, El Paso is a rare promotional stop for Perez and one of a handful of U.S. cities with Spanish-speaking audiences broad enough for a theater run.
The actor said he made the local appearance because of the Mexican drug war's impact on the borderland.
"It's important for me to get the support of Mexicans because we're so close to Mexico," Perez says. "What's happening in the film is happening in the Dominican Republic, it's happening in Mexico and Colombia and many other Latin American countries."
What's happening is the unraveling of rule of law. The film, stylishly shot by director Josh Crook, follows the title character (in English, Luisito's nickname would be "The Rope"), a grizzled assassin who is cop, judge and executioner to deportees from the U.S. who populate the Dominican Republic's crime world.
"That's a huge problem in real life," says the 41-year-old Perez, who was born to a poor family of 11 siblings in Baitoa, Dominican Republic. He now lives in New York.
"Most of the guys who are deported were raised in the U.S. and did their time here, so when they go back to the Dominican Republic, they feel they are above the law," he says.
The film's anti-hero has no qualms mowing down bad guys at the order of his commanding general, who has some dubious ties of his own. He's driven by revenge for the death of his butcher father at the hands of a drug lord, but he starts to soften, and question his boss after reconnecting with a childhood friend, a love interest named Jenny (Denise Quiones, Miss Universe 2001).
There are a few more real-life resonances between Luisito and Perez: they're both lifelong vegetarians, motivated by a traumatic childhood experience involving the slaughter of a pig, which is graphically represented in the film. (Animal lovers, be warned.)
Some critics have called into question the film's violent portrayal of the Dominican Republic. The country's leader, President Leonel Fernandez Reyna, shared those concerns when he found out "La Soga" was set to screen at the Toronto Film Festival, one of the biggest in the world.
"He flew me out to the Dominican Republic and we did a screening with him," Perez says. "It was him and all kinds of politicians and generals. And when it finished, no one applauded and I was freaking out."
After a few tense seconds, the President stood up and applauded. Everyone followed suit.
"He said, This film is telling the world what I've been fighting for the longest time," Perez says. "So he gave me the seal of approval but at the time it was pretty scary."