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'Secuestro Express'

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

The new movie "Secuestro Express," Spanish for kidnap express, has a legend on its screen in its opening moments that says, `An incalculable number of kidnappings happen daily in Latin America.' NPR's Bob Mondello says the film depicts what looks like a ransom economy at work.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

In a brisk opening sequence, the film introduces the teaming metropolis of Caracas, Venezuela, shows us the vast differences between the city's haves and have-nots and introduces an unrepresentative sample of both, just past midnight. Among the haves at a trendy disco is Martin, who gets an on-screen label saying, `High maintenance, old money,' and his fiancee, Carla, who's tagged with, `Volunteer at a public clinic.'

(Soundbite of disco music)

MONDELLO: On the have-not side are a gang of thugs including Budu who gets the tag, `Painter, rapist, sentimental father'...

(Soundbite of child laughing)

MONDELLO: ...and Trece, who rides a motorcycle and is accurately called a middle-class romantic. There are others but the names don't really matter. Outside a drugstore, the haves encounter the have-nots and are taken hostage by them.

(Soundbite from "Secuestro Express")

(Soundbite of scream; conversation in foreign language)

MONDELLO: After a few moments of panic and shouting, things calm down enough for phone calls to Martin's very wealthy father, who's out gambling, and Carla's significantly less wealthy dad, who's resting up from seeing patients at his clinic. Ransom demands are made along with threats and then there are a few hours to kill, so the thugs take Martin to an ATM to get some cash, and while he's getting it, he's attacked by another thief.

(Soundbite from "Secuestro Express")

(Soundbite of ATM machine; thump; conversation in foreign language; shooting)

MONDELLO: So begins a nightmarish urban odyssey that would give even Odysseus pause, ordeals involving corrupt cops, murderous drug dealers, sexy sirens of various genders and persuasions, rape and religion, obsessed crooks, scary slums. Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz keeps the tension ratcheted high and the atmosphere gritty. Digital video gives the kidnapping story the feel of something captured rather than crafted. Jakubowicz has made what must play in Latin America as a real-world horror movie, one that never excuses the actions of the thugs but it does get at the social imbalances that prompt class hatred.

"Secuestro Express" stops short of being a morality tale or even a social drama. It's more a vivid snapshot of a world where life is cheaper than almost everything else. If there's a point, besides taking the audience hostage, it escaped me, but the images are alarming, the pace relentless and "Secuestro Express" expressly harrowing.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.