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Ladrón que Roba a Ladrón

A Latin Riff on Ocean’s 11

A Spanish-language feature made in the United States for Latino-American moviegoers and, to a lesser extent, aficionados of foreign films, Ladrón que roba a ladrón (roughly translated as “thief who steals from a thief”), is a surprisingly entertaining, if no less formulaic riff on the heist genre. Think of Ladrón que roba a ladrón as a Latin-American Ocean’s 11 on a modest budget.

With a surprising amount of wit and charm, that more than makes up for the smaller scale and, of course, the foreign language (for non-Spanish speakers that is), and you’ll get a relatively clear idea as to what Ladrón que roba a ladrón aspires to be: a light, action romp starring bankable actors thoroughly enjoying themselves, a clever script that stays a step or two ahead of the audience, and satisfying subtext about Latinos and the American experience.

Con men and longtime friends, Alejandro Toledo (Fernando Colunga) and Emilio Lopez (Miguel Varoni), get back together to con Moctesuma "Mocte" Valdez (Saúl Lisazo), an informercial guru who’s made a fortune selling worthless health products to poor Latino immigrants. Paranoid, Valdez keeps all of his money in gold-plated vault on his property. To con Valdez out of his fortune, Alejandro and Emilio naturally need a team of expert thieves. Unfortunately, their crew has moved on to other legitimate or illegitimate business enterprises or has no interest in the con, especially since the con involves masquerading as servants and unskilled workers. Unfazed, Alejandro suggests using “real” Latino day laborers.

Emilio disagrees until he meets Alejandro’s crew of talented amateurs, Rafa (Ruben Garfias), the designated wheelman or “driver,” his daughter, Rafaela (Ivonne Montero), a tomboyish, temperamental auto mechanic, Miguelito (Oscar Torres), a Cuban actor and refugee, Anival Cano (Gabriel Soto), a muscular construction worker with experience in tunnel building, and Julio Miranda (screenwriter JoJo Henrickson), a mumbling electronics and computer expert. With their help, Alejandro and Emilio hope to take down Valdez just as he receives the “Hispanic Man of the Year” award from the local chamber of commerce.

As a heist film, Ladrón que roba a ladrón never strays far from the conventions of the genre. Regardless of ambition or, for that matter, budget, heist films depend on the likeability and relatability of the characters, at least in comparison to the villain or villains who, by the end of the film, get their comeuppance for their greed and hubris. Almost as importantly, heist films are about the con itself, about how difficult it is for the characters to pull it off, how many obstacles stand in the way of their goals, and the number and quality of switchbacks and reversals.

Given that, director Joe Menendez (Hunting of Man) and his screenwriter, JoJo Henrickson (The Barrio Murders), have to work hard to overcome the story elements that moviegoers will see as overly familiar and predictable (because, frankly, they are). That they do overcome them is a credit to Menendez’s unobtrusive direction that rarely emphasizes style for style’s sake and Henrickson’s screenplay. It’s both tightly paced, only losing momentum near the end when the epilogue runs longer than it should, and smartly written, blending broad laughs with clever wordplay and subtext about the immigrant experience for Latinos and the struggle for fairness, equality, and opportunity.

Not surprisingly, a game cast of actors and actresses from Latin American countries, most of them with experience in Mexican telenovelas and films, give energetic, enthusiastic performances that are never less than watchable. Sometimes, though, the performances get too broad, but Menendez knows when to reel them in moments before they go over the top and ruin a particular scene. Of course, neither of the co-leads, Fernando Colunga or Miguel Varoni will make moviegoers forget George Clooney or Brad Pitt (or Matt Damon for that matter), but they’re serviceable, likable substitutes that have just enough talent and charisma to see them through to the final fadeout.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars