Would-be muckraking thriller "The Gatekeeper" plunges its uptight and identity-conflicted Mexican-American antihero into the grim underworld of illegal aliens. Actor-turned-director John Carlos Frey, who also stars, knows how to push the right sentimental buttons in what ultimately amounts to a pedestrian actioner.

Would-be muckraking thriller “The Gatekeeper” plunges its uptight and identity-conflicted Mexican-American antihero into the grim underworld of illegal aliens. Actor-turned-director John Carlos Frey, who also stars, knows how to push the right sentimental buttons in what ultimately amounts to a pedestrian actioner, a cliched compendium of Anglo villains and Mexican martyrs. Despite film’s self-congratulatory bravado as a “fearless expose,” Hollywood has been down this dirt road before, most notably in the 1949 Anthony Mann-directed, John Alton-shot noir cult classic “Border Incident.” Little has changed except the quality of the filmmaking. Script, thesping and direction are competent, however, and emotionally resonant political themes could help pic snag further top honors in minor-league fests (it won Phoenix Award at Santa Barbara and best film at San Diego Latin fest) and insure a healthy cable life.

Story crossbreeds the old-fashioned undercover criminal investigation genre with new-fashioned strains of ethnic self-hatred as recently uncorked in “The Believer.” Frey plays Adam Fields, a Mexican-American Border Patrol officer who passes for gringo so convincingly that he becomes active in a racist vigilante group bent on wiping out illegal immigration by any means necessary. Script, wonderfully over the top in limning its bad guys, has extremists headed by a reactionary radio personality spewing virulent paranoia about the country being overrun by Mexicans and forced to live on beans and tortillas.

These good ol’ boys decide to send in one of their own incognito, ostensibly to reveal the smuggling operation but, in fact, to set up wetbacks for latenight target practice. They choose Adam, little dreaming that their fake Mexican is the genuine article.

Adam, “disguised” as a Mexican, is sent across the border to be smuggled back with a motley group of his despised compatriots. But Adam’s redneck friends prove no match for the professional killers who trade in illegal immigrants as expendable labor for a rural California crystal meth processing plant. Adam finds himself sharing unbearable conditions with people whose humanity and dignity he reluctantly begins to recognize. Meanwhile, the plight of a young woman (Michelle Agnew) with a little boy mirrors his own troubled past.

Cast is OK, particularly Ann Betancourt as Lenora, a woman whose weary compassion has survived years of abuse. The actress has enough presence to vouch for the indomitable spirit of the Mexican people, grounding the otherwise fairly featureless bunch of players. Frey’s Adam is self-contained and stoic to a fault, never granting the audience much more than a surface upon which to project the appropriate emotions.

Tech credits are hard to judge, since pic was projected in a video format several steps down from the original.

The Gatekeeper

Production

A Gatekeeper Prods. production. Produced by John Carlos Frey. Executive producer, Jack Lorenz. Directed, written by John Carlos Frey.

Crew

Camera (color, digital video), Kris Denton; editor, Jacek Kropinski; music, Carlo Giacco; production designer, Daren Janes; costume designer, Julie Reeder; sound, Glen Bates; casting, Patrick Rush. Reviewed at Urbanworld Film Festival, New York, Aug. 9, 2002. (Also in Santa Barbara and San Diego Latino Film Festivals.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Adam Fields - John Carlos Frey Eva Ramirez - Michelle Agnew Lenora - Anne Betancourt Vance Johnson - Joel Brooks Peter Randolph - Kai Lennox Jose - Joe Pasqual Jack Green - J. Patrick McCormack Jennifer McGregory - Tricia O'Kelley
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