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Film review: Serial-killer drama illuminates media

CRONICAS — ** 1/2 — John Leguizamo, Damian Alcazar, Leonor Watling; in English and Spanish, with English subtitles; rated R (violence, profanity, sex, brief gore, drugs, brief veiled nudity, vulgarity).

The serial-killer story line in "Cronicas" isn't all that new. In fact, it's pretty conventional stuff. However, what the film tries to say about the manipulation of mass media — in particular, television news — is much more intriguing and considerably more interesting.

Because it starts off by concentrating on the latter, this dramatic suspense-thriller gets better as it goes along, even though the ending isn't nearly as surprising or shocking as the filmmakers clearly intend it to be. And it's nice to see John Leguizamo in a strictly dramatic role, starring as Manolo Bonilla, the star reporter for a Miami-produced news program.

Manolo and his producer, Marisa (Leonor Watling, who is a Pedro Almodovar regular), along with cameraman Ivan (Jose Maria Yazpik), have been sent to Ecuador, where they're on the trail of a serial killer known by the horrified and outraged residents as "the monster."

But they uncover evidence to suggest that the culprit may already be in jail and that he may be Vinicio Cepeda (Damian Alcazar), a man that Manolo saved from a public lynching. During one of Manolo's jail visits, Vinicio claims to know the identity of the killer, which he'll reveal only in exchange for his freedom.

So Manolo and his producers try to decide whether they should accept that offer — and whether they should tell Vinicio's family, which seems unaware of his recent activities.

Ecuadoran filmmaker Sebastian Cordero certainly has style to burn and has some intriguing opinions on the news media, though he could have left out some of the more melodramatic plot elements (such as the affair going on between Leguizamo and Watling's characters).

He also gets good performances from his cast. Leguizamo and Alcazar are very believable, and their characters' cat-and-mouse game is riveting. But it's a shame that after persuading Alfred Molina to appear in his film, he then misuses him; the veteran character actor is consigned to a blink-and-you'll miss-it cameo as a news show host.

"Cronicas" is rated R for violence (including some mob violence, a beating and some vehicular violence), occasional use of strong sexual profanity, simulated sex, some brief gore, some drug content (including marijuana use), brief veiled male nudity and use of crude slang terms (some of them sexual). Running time: 98 minutes.