Gringos in Third World prisons never fare particularly well, and “186 Dollars to Freedom,” helmer Camilo Vila’s politically conscious thriller about an American surfer framed for drug trafficking, is a particularly nasty trip into correctional-facility hell. Setting his fact-based tale on the eve of democratic elections in 1980 Peru, Vila tends to err on the side of melodrama whenever possible, and John Robinson’s lead perf offers no end of privileged American naivete. But the characters are solid and the action sound, suggesting the film will do short time theatrically en route to ancillary rehab.
Wayne Montgomery (Robinson), modeled on producer/screenwriter Monty Fisher, is a Beverly Hills refugee living it up in Lima when he overstays his visa and is picked up by the Peruvian authorities. Panicked, he tries to escape, and when he’s recaptured, the thoroughly corrupt and sadistic inspector Gutierrez (vet Michael DeLorenzo) — whose racket is extorting money from the families of innocent prisoners — seals the deal by hiding cocaine in Wayne’s backpack.
This and Wayne’s attitude alienate the American consul (Deborah Kara Unger), ensuring that there’s no official sympathy for the surfer/tourista, who can now be held for years without so much as a court hearing. Even Wayne’s gorgeous g.f., Maritza (newcomer Anahi de Cardenas), doesn’t know where he is, and Wayne refuses to let anyone contact his family, whom Gutierrez wants to blackmail. So he’s stuck in a situation that’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
Wayne doesn’t come across as particularly enlightened or entirely sympathetic, and Vila efficiently underscores the point by crosscutting between a politically volatile teachers’ strike and shots of the privileged of Peru, lolling around on the beach. “This place used to be just one big party for me,” Wayne says. “I had no idea there was so much suffering.” His education will come at the hands of his fellow prisoners, ranging from the innocent to the deranged, from Marxist organizers to vicious criminals like Nicaragua (Alex Meraz). They also include Hari Krishna follower Jorge (Johnny Lewis) and one gloriously demented long-term inmate (Grant Bowler) who thinks he’s Jesus Christ and plays a vital part in the film’s miraculous conclusion.
The pic achieves a gritty realism through Fernando Gagliuffi’s production design and the moody shooting of Henry Vargas, who has shot only a handful of films over the past 25 years, but gives this one a real sense of atmosphere.