Mark Christensen has made a movie with a great idea at it's core and is poetic and smart in it's execution. Douglas Spain plays Bondo, a smart kid from the sticks, poor and dreaming of America. But American Flyer is also very funny and nuanced in how it handles the heroes journey.
I loved the fact that Bondo is building his airplane from spare auto parts. Douglas Spain is great as this ambitious everyman. Another movie might have made him a clichéd genius surrounded by clownish inferiors, but Bondo is very real, he's bright but limited. Spain captures a sort of frustrating single-mindedness in this character. We follow Bondo on his adventures around Mexico, rounding up mechanical parts, evading traps and dealing with an oddball cast of characters.
Patricia Rae is particularly heartbreaking as his cousin, she is both erotic and sad as she attempts to play the men in her life but instead, they play her. Danny Trejo has a rare chance to show his warmth as Bondo's uncle and he is just as great a screen presence as he is when he plays a bad guy. I liked the way the movie subverts stereotypes and portrays Mexico and Mexicans as a varied and diverse civilization, with no easy generalizations drawn. Even Tijuana is shown to be both menacing and enticing, Christensen shoots it beautifully, in a fluid, almost musical style. But that's not the best part of this movie - the best part is the villain.
The homemade airplane and Bondo's plan seem completely plausible and yes, you root for the good guy, but I swear, it's this villain - the total scumbag corrupt cop, 'Gonzales' - that you secretly root for. Julian Scott Urena, who plays Gonzales, almost steals this clever movie from the hero and everyone else, including the girl, Danny Trejo and even from the airplane.
Without getting into all the twists and turns, Gonzales, the chief of police for Tijuana is trying to stop Bondo from leaving Mexico for the North. And Urena makes his character - who tortures, kills, double-crosses, etc - compelling and sympathetic. Gonzales takes it very personally that Bondo wants to leave Mexico - Chief Gonzales loves his homeland and he should - it's been good to him. His rage is believable and frightening because he is wounded by the entire concept of Mexicans going North over the border.
This migration North saddens and infuriates Gonzales and Urena takes you along for this emotional ride. You feel his sadness morph to anger and his rage build, it's menacing, he's out of control, but Urena/Gonzales actually convinces you that there is something even worse about Bondo's American dream. Funny, believable and wildly threatening, Urena is like a psychotic one-man Tijuana Chamber of Commerce.
Urena's performance reminds me a little of Orson Welles corrupt sheriff Quinlan in "Touch Of Evil", he rolls around town, showing up everywhere, manipulating the sharpest hustlers in town, lying, cheating and very charming. And Urena's made this character surprisingly resonant because he's motivated by so much more than just greed. It's great stuff in a good movie.
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