Manos Sucias (or “Dirty Hands” in English) is a neat crime drama produced mainly by Spike Lee. It is the debut feature of Josef Kubota Wladyka whose protagonists are Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) and Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez), drug runners from the Colombian town of Buenaventura.
Jacobo in his 30s, is the older brother of Delio, 19, but the two have not seen each other in prolonged period of time despite living in the same town. The first introduction of Delio to the picture is somewhat confusing, he’s with a friend who disappears for the rest of the narrative. Delio is chosen to accompany Jacobo in a motorboat equipped with an old, rusty torpedo shell containing kilos of cocaine. They travel up the Pacific west coast accompanied by Miguel, a surly, racist, light-skinned drug gang member who disparages Jacobo and Delio for their admiration of Pele, the famed soccer player quite simply, because he’s black.
The contrast between the personalities of Jacobo and Delio is etched in high relief. Jacobo is sullen and haunted by the death of his young son at the hands of paramilitaries – and now after his wife has left him, seeks to move to Bogota, the Colombian capital, to make a new life. Delio, on the other hand, is boisterous and hopes to bring his girlfriend and new son, a measure of material comforts, from their share of the drug sales.
The plot begins to pick up when Jacobo is forced to kill Miguel after Miguel shoots an innocent child unknowingly playing on top of the drug torpedo. The plot line becomes even more exciting when the brothers’ drug stash is stolen by a young vendor who earlier had sold Delio some coconuts during a lull in their trip up the Pacific.
Jacobo and Delio, knowing that if they don’t recover the drugs they will be killed, proceed inland and hitch a ride in a motorcycle sidecar powered by engines running on an abandoned train track. Using a GPS tracker, they finally find the torpedo but the drugs are missing. Somehow (and it seems a bit far fetched), the brothers are able to locate the thief at a nearby house where he’s taking care of his ailing grandmother.
Jacobo threatens to kill the grandmother, ultimately forcing the vendor to show them where he hid the drugs. Again they travel down the tracks in the sidecar and almost are discovered by paramilitary soldiers who are proceeding in the other direction. After eluding the soldiers, the vendor escapes but is eventually shot by Delio on the beach. This is the point where the ‘dirty hands’ come in.
Out of bullets, Delio is forced to strangle the young drug thief with his bare hands.
The tragedy of course is that the two brothers are portrayed as decent guys who get involved in nefarious activities in order to escape their impoverished economic situation. Both neophyte actors give excellent performances as the beleaguered drug runners. Jarlin Javier Martinez as Jacobo is particularly impressive, especially in the scene where he breaks down recounting the death of his young son. Cristian James Abvincula as Delio also adroitly conveys his deep anguish when he reluctantly must commit murder.
During down time while on the boat, Jacobo and Delio’s conversations give us an additional peak into their lives outside of their dark profession. Often there’s talk about the racial disparities of their social milieu (we become aware that it’s extremely difficult for black Colombians to become successful in the ‘white man’s world’). The film’s soundtrack, featuring punchy local pop songs, adds to the overall flavor of the brothers’ peripatetic world.
Manos Sucias is filmed occasionally in a cinema verité style particularly during the action scenes. This is where less of the use of a shaky, hand-held camera, would have been more effective.
While I often feel Spike Lee’s own films are a hit or miss affair, he seems to have a real talent for picking winners as a producer. Manos Sucias is an example of one of them—impressive in its on the mark verisimilitude.