Veteran B-movie helmer Rowdy Herrington shows his chops in genre-infused “I Witness,” a thriller set in Mexico, with skinhead, tattooed thugs straight out of central casting, and the requisite outbreaks of gunfire from unseen assailants. It’s a strange film to pop up in a fest, but it’s one that will look right at home in ancillary.
A pile of dead bodies, several of the corpses with gunshot wounds, is found in a collapsed underground tunnel in northern Mexico. Meanwhile, two San Diego youths have mysteriously disappeared while in Mexico on a dirt-bike-riding expedition.
The arrival of Jeff Daniels, playing an American human rights investigator, kicks the movie up a notch. Ostensibly in Mexico to supervise union elections at the local factory of a U.S. manufacturing company, Daniels finds himself drawn into the broader conspiracy, in which the factory may be a part. With some help from an old State Dept. friend (James Spader, wasted in a throwaway role), he gets permission to join in the investigation, partnering with the homicide detective (Clifton Collins, Jr.) in charge of the case.
The pleasure of Daniels’ performance lies in how bemused he seems by all these goings-on, how he seems to care even less than director Herrington who actually dunnit. The more distant Daniels gets, the more interesting his performance becomes. Grizzled and bearded, moving as though he carries some enormous weight, Daniels is like something out of Graham Greene; he’s seen it all before — spent his whole life “getting too close to the truth.”
Daniels and Collins have an unforced chemistry, and in those few moments when the script lets go of the plot for a while, there are some nice scenes in which these two law-enforcers from opposite sides of the border come to realize the ways in which they’re fundamentally fighting the same good fight.
The movie isn’t as clever by half as Herrington’s previous “A Murder of Crows,” which pitted lawyer Cuba Gooding Jr. against a villain with a penchant for disguise and a predilection for literature. Mostly, “I Witness” is about delivering a requisite level of action violence, which Herrington pulls off with weary confidence, if not spectacle. But in the end, it’s only Daniels who seems invested in more than just his paycheck.
Tech contributions are acceptable, with vet Michael Mann and George Romero collaborator Pasquale Buba’s crack editing adding snap to the proceedings.