There isn’t enough of the amigo in Amigo. Writer-director John Sayles’ fictionalization of the U.S. conquest of the Philippines hardly serves as a history lesson, either—viewers who don’t already know about the conflict will likely be confused about what exactly is going on. Neither character-narrative engaging nor educationally enlightening, the film adds up to a fail.
It’s a handsome fail, at least. Actually filmed in the Philippines, Amigo alternately captures the archipelago’s green lushness and monsoon dreariness. And with a cast featuring Chris Cooper and Garret Dillahunt (you may not recognize the No Country for Old Men actor’s name, but you’ll know his face), your expectations should start out reasonably high. But they’ll steadily plummet throughout the film’s two-hour-plus run time. Here are the Filipino villagers, bemoaning their fate. Here are the American soldiers, getting drunk. And here are the insurgents, plotting. Every once in a while, Cooper’s Col. Hardacre shows up out of nowhere to bark. (The occupancy is run mostly by Dillahunt’s Lt. Compton.) There’s also a Spanish priest (Yul Vazquez) who claims to have been kept prisoner by the insurgents but is living among the villagers. Why? It’s not very clear.
Sayles should have focused on the titular character, Rafael (Joel Torre), the village’s head man. When asked who he is, Rafael immediately replies, “Amigo,” and the name sticks. Rafael’s quandary is twofold. He tries to play peacefully with the Americans while also protecting his people. But his own well-being rests on whether he’ll tell the soldiers where the insurgents—led by his brother and aided by his son—are hiding.
It’s a setup that could have led to a story rife with tension—if Sayles hadn’t pulled away from it so often. Does it really add much color that one soldier has the clap and another is sweet on a native? Is Cooper’s character, who’s barely in the movie, even necessary? Perhaps these side trips would have played better had the director given more historical background up front. As it stands, viewers will be too distracted trying to figure it out for themselves to appreciate Sayles’ attempt at depth.