Four childhood friends, bound by a shared secret, grow up to find themselves on opposite sides of the law in the low-budget Texas indie “Mission Park.” Playing in limited release since Sept. 13, this feature directing debut for Bryan Anthony Ramirez (who has since made the Malcolm McDowell-Lou Diamond Phillips thriller “Sanitarium”) certainly doesn’t lack ambition as it mixes and matches bits of “Mean Streets,” “Sleepers” and “Scarface,” but lays everything on far too thick — tragic backstories, uncanny coincidences, double and triple crosses — and stretches credibility well past the breaking point. Still, there are flashes of talent here, and as calling-card indies go, this one is worth filing away under “just might be somebody someday.”
“Mission Park” begins ominously, with a smoking gun lying on the floor of a “Reservoir Dogs”-style warehouse and the voice of our narrator, Bobby (Jeremy Ray Valdez), telling us he’s made a lot of mistakes in life and that, where he comes from — the wrong side of the San Antonio tracks — “most don’t make it past the age of 24.” The pic then flashes back a decade and introduces us to the teenage Bobby (Jeremy Becerra); his adopted brother, Julian (Austin Brock); and their homies Jason (Bryce Cass) and Derek (Alonzo Lara), the former a hair-trigger instigator, the latter his slow-witted sidekick.
At dinner in a neighborhood taqueria, Jason impulsively proposes robbing the joint — a plan that goes predictably awry, resulting in the shooting deaths of two employees. It’s a scene we’ve seen countless times, but Ramirez stages it compellingly, shooting in handsomely composed widescreen digital and drawing strong performances from his young actors (generally more impressive than the adult performers who soon fill their shoes).
A few years on from those events, Bobby and Julian (now played by Will Rothhaar) graduate from high school to the beaming pride of Dad and the somewhat envious glances of their burnout friends. Then we jump ahead again, to the FBI Academy, where both brothers are about to become newly minted cadets — which is just about the time “Mission Park” begins to lose its specific sense of place and character, and its grip on plausible reality. Lo and behold, a mysterious kingpin known only as “Nadie” (Spanish for “no one”) has become the drug world’s leading importer/exporter, and all the Bureau knows about him is that his two most trusted lieutenants are none other than Jason and Derek. So, unlikely as it seems, before they even have their badges in hand, Bobby and Julian are assigned to go undercover in Nadie’s operation, using their old friendships to pave the way.
The movies by their very nature require a certain suspension of disbelief, but “Mission Park” requires more suspension than a two-ton crane could provide. Even if one accepts that, within the span of a few years, Jason could go from two-bit thug to one of the FBI’s most wanted (an ascendancy the movie never bothers to explain), Ramirez also asks us to believe that Bobby and Julian have concealed their enrollment in the FBI from everyone in their lives — even Bobby’s childhood sweetheart Gina (Fernanda Romero) — and that no one (or is that No One?) seems the slightest bit suspicious when they suddenly show up back in town, looking for work in Nadie’s criminal enterprise.
The pic becomes more of a chore to watch as it goes on, especially once Ramirez starts layering in heavy-handed flashbacks to the characters’ troubled childhoods, including the violent demises of pretty much everyone’s parents at the end of a drug needle or the hands of each other. Which is still preferable to a couple of hilariously corny slo-mo sex scenes straight out of a tejano music video.
Yet, for all the piled-on melodrama, the performances are mostly stiff — when one supposedly sensitive character witnesses the senseless murder of a loved one, his reaction suggests something closer to an irritating ankle sprain. Of the adult cast, only “Army Wives” regular Joseph Julian Soria makes any real impact as the put-upon Derek, chafing at a lifetime of insults to his intelligence, primed to explode — a fine performance in search of a better movie. Vivica A. Fox and Sean Patrick Flannery add some modest name value, but little else, in cameos as an FBI superior and a local San Antonio cop.