It’s problematic when a possible franchise-launcher feels like an indifferent later entry in a series, and that is the case with “En Brazos de un Asesino” aka “In the Arms of an Assassin.” This Pantelion release has the requisite basic elements for undemanding escapism, with attractive leads, erotic elements and ample bullet-riddled peril. But despite being based on the first of seven (so far) interlocking pulp romantic-thrillers by J.A. Redmerski, Matias Moltrasio’s feature directorial debut isn’t splashy or assured enough to leave one wanting more, and the narrative awkwardly completes one arc and begins another after the two-thirds point.
Opening on approximately 150 U.S. screens Dec. 6, the film is certainly a viable commercial item among Spanish-speaking audiences. But let’s hope any follow-ups leave a stronger impression.
Playing a character described in publicity as “one of the world’s most handsome men,” producer/co-scenarist William Levy is the subtly named Victor Faust, a globe-trotting hitman introduced walking fearlessly into the heavily guarded compound of drug lord Javier (Roberto Sosa). He’s so lethally cool he susses that one of Javier’s men has a gun on him, then shoots the man dead — all without even turning around to look.
His host wants Victor to kill a rival. But after agreeing and driving off, he finds he’s got a stowaway in Sarai (Alicia Sanz), who’s been Javier’s involuntary mistress for nine years, since she was 14. Desperate to escape “a world of drugs, murderers, and slavery,” she tells Victor she can be used as a bargaining chip, since Javier is sure to renege on paying the full fee he’s promised his hired killer.
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The drug lord soon sends goons and his venomous sister (Thanya Lopez) after the uneasily allied duo, being enraged by the desertion of his “favorite.” Meanwhile, Javier insists on keeping Sarai bound much of the time — seemingly just so she can squirm helplessly in her panties — and communicates with his brother Niklas (Adrian Lastra), who is also in some murky secret organization called “The Order.”
After a few shootouts, the film simply leaves behind what had appeared its principal plot engine (the threat of Javier and company), embarking belatedly on a new focus. Our leads are now glamorous co-conspirators in the business of meting out justice to other wealthy international bad guys, the first being an Italian hedonist (Ettore D’Alessandro).
The episodic nature of Levy and Jeff Goldberg’s script isn’t smoothed over by Moltrasio’s handling, which in its over-dependence on fade-outs seems designed for TV-commercial breaks. Though there’s a lot of violence, it’s more hectic than vivid, with little overall suspense momentum. (There’s also that reliably bad idea, a memory-montage of events just seen minutes before.) Even as a luxe fantasy of danger and hotness, the film falls short — though competently assembled in general, real high style is lacking. Too many scenes take place in empty warehouses or obviously dressed sound stages, budgetary concerns apparently hobbling the story’s feinted milieu of decadent haunts of the criminal-rich.
You don’t expect psychological depth from this kind of enterprise, but it’s disappointing that there isn’t more chemistry between the leads, despite a few arty sex scenes. It’s difficult to swallow that Spanish thesp Sanz’s wide-eyed heroine would so readily fall for a new captor who seldom treats her much better than the old one, let alone that she’d eventually want him to train her as an assassin, too.
Cuban-born Levy is duly the stereotypical picture of a conflicted romance-novel dreamboat, complete with husky sotto voce line readings and a single brooding facial expression. But he’s more male model than charismatic killer. Even within its pulp-fiction terms, the movie needs some greater emotional foundation than the occasional goo-goo eyes between these two well-dressed (or in her case, often barely-dressed) stick figures. Supporting performances are enthusiastic enough, though Lastra’s fraternal conflict as Niklas never quite comes into focus.
Shot in the Dominican Republic (though vaguely set in Mexico until the last reel or so), the U.S. production is being shown with English subtitles in Stateside Latino markets, with release date on Pantelion’s streaming platform Pantaya not yet unannounced.