For any thinking person, little in Josef Kubota Wladyka’s fleet and sweaty Colombian-smuggler thriller Manos Sucias will surprise. Drug-running is work for the broke and desperate; the runners might be less broke after a delivery, but that desperation only grows worse; killing is grim and painful and utterly unlike the balletic fun the movies so often insist. But as it dashes up the coast and railroads through the jungle, the film is vigorous in its evocation of place and prickling and insistent with its suspense. Those punishing truths come to feel like probabilities we hope against hope first-time smuggler Delio (Cristian Abvincula) might beat.
The title translates to Dirty Hands, so you know it’s not going to end well. A couple uncertain early scenes fail to establish the milieu or relationships with any clarity, but once the characters are in motion the film seizes hold. Delio and his older brother Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) putter up the Colombian coast in a rustbucket skiff, towing a torpedo stuffed with drugs. The idea is that when they’re stopped by gun-toting officials, they can let the torpedo sink and then haul it back up. Their journey is as sunny and beautiful as it is poisoned with tension. Wladyka mounts the camera to the front of the boat, and later to a motorcycle rigged to skim along train tracks in the jungle, so that we can gape at the scenery even as we’re hurled along — like its runners, the film rarely slows down. Early on, you might find a breath to relax a little, to hope this will all turn out to be an adventure. (There’s a good, clever chase sequence.) But Wladyka’s too honest to let his characters buck the odds: The Colombian navy’s searching boats for drugs, and other broke/desperate men see that torpedo as a way out of their own particular deprivations. When the killing starts, it’s hard to shake the realization that the men who die could have been the protagonists of their own tough-minded yet empathetic crime films — that, with just a tweak of perspective, you could be persuaded to feel that they’re the ones whose raw-deal lives make a murder or two almost understandable.
Since this isn’t an adventure film, there’s neither joy nor splatter in that killing. We’re not meant to get off on it; we’re meant to mourn it as it happens, and to wonder at its situational necessity. (Spike Lee is a producer, and Wladyka seems to share his antipathy toward fun violence — an antipathy that made Lee’s Oldboy as fascinating as it was frustrating.) The few scenes of death here are harrowing, even without much gore. The killing is slow and ugly, and takes everything out of Delio, whose face we look up at as he does what he thinks he must. The focus is on his eyes, his tears, his sweat, and the way the hands of his victim slowly stop beating at him. It’s not news, of course, that it’s a terrible thing to extinguish a life, but it’s a relief, when the shoot-’em-ups of Summer Movie Season are bearing down on us, to see a film that regards killing with pained awe. Wladyka’s hands are clean.