Producers: José L. Martínez Jr., Santiago García Galván and Alex García Director: Alfonso Pineda Ulloa Screenplay: Paul Schrader Cast: José María Yazpik, Shannyn Sossamon, Paz Vega, Neal McDonough, Keidrich Sellati, Tommy Flanagan, Karla Souza, Leticia Fabían Cruz, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, John Gilbert, Brian Glanney, Ron Perlman and Tim Roth Distributor: Saban Films
Finally released after sitting on the shelf for nearly a decade, “There Are No Saints” begins with a montage showing convicted hitman Neto Niente (José María Yazpik) being released from Texas’ Huntsville Prison while a disgusted radio commentator explains in voiceover how his conviction for murder was overturned when a state trooper admitted to planting evidence against him. “It is only a matter of time before something truly awful happens,” he says. It certainly doesn’t take long for that prediction to be fulfilled in the gritty, grisly crime drama, and by the time it closes a hundred minutes later it has featured some of the ugliest scenes of brutality, including a sequence of shocking cruelty directed against a child, seen in a long while.
One might be inclined to dismiss that as just the stuff of a naturally nasty genre, except that the screenplay is the work of Paul Schrader, who always has something more on his mind, often situating his stories in a religious context to convey some deeper meaning. That’s evident from the very start here, with an introductory Scriptural quotation from Exodus about the sins of the father being visited on the sons, a foreshadowing of the message that redemption, if it’s possible, often necessitates suffering, loss and guilt.
“Saints” serves as a sort of counterpoint to “Hardcore,” Schrader’s 1979 film, in which George C. Scott played a man driven by his strict Calvinist faith to track down his daughter, who he believes has been abducted to work in the porno industry. Here Neto is obsessed with rescuing his son Julio (Keidrich Sellati), who has been kidnapped by degenerate mobsters in an act of revenge and taken to a hellhole in Mexico. This time, however, the religious component is Catholicism rather than Calvinism. Neto is nicknamed The Jesuit (Schrader’s original title) because of his habit of torturing his victims (lurid flashbacks to his killing of a helpless woman are repeatedly inserted into the narrative), and he visits a church soon after his release, talking there with a priest. Julio, moreover, looks upon his father as a suffering saint, using his artistic ability to depict him as Jesus-like in a portfolio of drawings he’s made in blood-red ink.
Neto visits his old employer and says he wants to pull back from his old work, but whatever ideas he has about going straight are quickly upended. Rather the emphasis shifts immediately to his running afoul of a bunch of Texas troopers who beat him up, and of vicious crime lord Vincent (Neal McDonough), who has taken up with his ex-wife Nadia (Paz Vega), with whom Julio lives. Vincent is introduced torturing some poor fellow whom he’s strung up in crucifix-like fashion, and his temper never seems to abate, especially after Neto contacts Nadia and the adoring Julio again and Nadia has sex with him.
What follows is a hideously escalating spiral of violence. Vincent sends his gunmen to take out Neto, and a shootout in a parking lot follows—which Neto of course survives. When he goes to their house to check on Nadia and Julio, he finds her dead. After another shootout, Neto is in pursuit of Vincent, whose abduction of Julio he’s interrupted but not prevented. To track down his quarry and acquire some necessary hardware he will engage in yet another shootout in a strip club and kill a sleazy gun dealer, his wife and several of their henchmen at a firearms-laden mansion.
He does, however, find that Vincent has taken Julio to Mexico, and hires a stripper named Inez (Shannyn Sossamon), who helpfully informs him that her name is connected with St. Agnes, and is connected with chastity and purity—to impersonate his wife so he can get across the border more easily. They track Vincent to his estate, where Inez and the kidnapper get involved until he comes to suspect her motives and decides to beat the truth out of her. Naturally Neto intervenes and then brutally extracts his son’s location from Vincent (as in that recurring flashback to the woman’s killing, he shows a penchant for targeting hands and fingers) before killing him.
Neto and Inez then proceed to the hellish underground jail/torture chamber where Julio is being held by a powerful sex trafficker named Sans (Ron Perlman). They’re captured by his men, and Sans reveals the special kind of torture he has reserved for Neto—watching the gruesome fate he’s prepared for the boy. He has his reasons, he explains—related, again, to those flashbacks to the woman’s death. What he’s arranged is justice, he argues, though revenge is also an ingredient.
It should be noted that the lead-up to this protracted, nasty sequence—during which one might be genuinely concerned about what’s being done not just to Julio but to young Sellati—isn’t entirely clear, the capture of Neto and Inez not shown in detail. That’s just one point in the film where the transitions are terribly abrupt, perhaps of re-editing in preparation for its release, since Dan Levental is cited as editor in the opening credits but Debbie Berman’s name in given in that capacity in the final crawls.
What don’t appear to have been trimmed are the incessant bloody action and torture scenes, which go on at inordinate length. And though they’re reasonably well choreographed by director Alfonso Pineda Ulloa and his colleagues and played out well enough by the stone-faced star, their frequency makes for very grim, unpleasant viewing. (The manic turns by Sossamon and McDonough add some energy to the proceedings, but among the others even Perlman seems to be skeepwalking, and Tim Roth, in a couple of appearances as Neto’s lawyer, is emptily voluble.) The gloomily downbeat tone is accentuated by the dank production design by Iñigo Navarro and Bernardo Trujillo, Mateo London’s noirish cinematography and Heitor Pereira’s dark score.)
Perhaps had “The Jesuit” been directed by Schrader himself, as originally intended, the result might have been more interesting. But “There Are No Saints” emerges after its long slumber as an especially repellent revenge melodrama, beset by excessive violence and heavy-handed moralizing.