Admirably sincere but bluntly simplistic, “Amigo” finds veteran indie multihyphenate John Sayles combing through a nearly forgotten chapter of history — specifically, the American occupation of the Philippines, circa 1900 — for thought-provoking parallels to recent misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s likely deliberate that the characters are archetypes and the storyline is almost entirely predictable, since the repetitiveness of history is clearly Sayles’ underlying theme. But good intentions can’t breathe fresh life into cliches or dispel the overall impression of schematic didacticism. Pic is best suited for cable and homevid, though it also could prove useful as a teaching tool.
In a remote rural village far from Manila, soldiers led by the strict but fair-minded Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt) are assigned to win the “hearts and minds” of locals (yes, someone actually uses that Vietnam War-era phrase) while establishing the basics of democracy and, more importantly, maintaining a watchful eye for guerrilla rebels. Rafael (Joel Torre), the middle-aged village elder, is so eager to maintain peaceful relations with the uninvited occupiers — who address him as “amigo” — that he communicates with Compton through the sanctimonious Padre Hidalgo (Yule Vazquez), despite the priest’s unabashed sympathies toward the country’s recently deposed Spanish colonizers. (The U.S. occupation, “Amigo” duly notes, was an offshoot of the Spanish-American War.)
Unfortunately, Rafael’s dealings with the Americans place him at odds with his brother, Simon (Ronnie Lazaro), leader of the rebels encamped in the nearby countryside. Rafael’s loyalties are further tested by his young son’s impulsive decision to join Simon in armed resistance to the occupation. Torre easily dominates “Amigo” with his unaffectedly affecting performance as a basically decent, normally apolitical fellow who’s a natural-born leader — early on, we see him as the village’s selfless moral authority — but unable to maneuver out of an impossible position. Trouble is, his character lacks a truly worthy foil. Sayles evidently intends Compton to represent a man intent on doing the right thing even while looking out for the best interests of his own people. But the role is sketchily written — there’s no real payoff to the hints of his civilian background as a cultured man with an appreciation for architecture — and Dillahunt’s bland performance fails to fill in any gaps.
Longtime Sayles collaborator Chris Cooper makes rather too much of his limited screen time as Compton’s superior officer, Col. Hardacre, a racist hardass who would rather employ sticks than proffer carrots while dealing with indigenous people. The character does serve to introduce some interesting historical perspective: Hardacre, like other U.S. soldiers then assigned to the Philippines, frequently refers to his relatively recent experiences in brutally regimenting Native Americans in the West. But Hardacre’s condoning of enhanced interrogation techniques, and his insistence that such methods do not qualify as torture, are among the pic’s heavier-handed attempts at contemporary relevance.
“Amigo” proceeds at a stately pace while depicting the wary interplay between Americans and Filipinos, sustaining mild interest without generating much suspense as stereotypes on either side behave in ways that are sporadically amusing, but never surprising. Tech values are for the most part unremarkable. Pic overall has the look and feel of a mid-level “American Playhouse” production of the mid-1980s.