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Originally published Friday, August 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Low-key cautionary tale shows Leguizamo at his understated best

By avoiding sensationalism, "Crónicas" scores points as an authentic journalism thriller, and John Leguizamo is at his understated...

Special to The Seattle Times

By avoiding sensationalism, "Crónicas" scores points as an authentic journalism thriller, and John Leguizamo is at his understated best as a star reporter whose media power is recklessly abused with tragic repercussions.

It's Colombia-born Leguizamo's first Spanish-speaking role, and as Manolo Bonilla — an investigative reporter for the Latin-American tabloid news show "One Hour with the Truth" (hosted from Miami by Alfred Molina in a cameo role) — the actor's versatile charisma is in full force.

When we first see Bonilla, producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) and cameraman Ivan (José María Yazpik) covering the latest developments in an Ecuadorean serial-murder case, we can see that the reporter is a relentless newshound with a knack for finding a humanistic angle which makes him popular with viewers.

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Crónicas," with John Leguizamo, Leonor Watling, José María Yazpik and Damián Alcázar. Directed and written by Sebastián Cordero. 98 minutes. Rated R for language, brief nudity, subject matter. In Spanish with English subtitles. Varsity.

That instinct is tested when Bible salesman Vinicio Cepeda (played with sly calculation by Damián Alcázar) is attacked by a lynch mob after he accidentally strikes a boy while driving through the village of Babahoyo. Assuming he was attempting escape by reversing his truck, angry locals beat him senseless and nearly burn him to death before he is jailed along with his principal assailant, the dead boy's father.

Never one to miss a potential ratings bonanza, Bonilla interviews Cepeda in jail, intending to clear his name but eventually realizing that Cepeda is probably the "Monster of Babahoyo," responsible for the kidnapping, rape and murder of several local children.

As handled by Ecuadorean writer-director Sebastián Cordero, this cat-and-mouse game is familiar and ultimately predictable. Cepeda's guilt is never really in question, and the powerful opening scenes (an intense collision of mob violence and journalistic intrusion) are diminished by a battle of wills that, inevitably, lead to a tragic miscalculation by the headstrong reporter.

Given the excessive theatrics of many serial-killer thrillers, Cordero deserves credit for a sensible, low-key approach, and Leguizamo strikes a fine balance of opportunistic ambition and manipulative influence. But we've seen this cautionary tale before, and the outcome, while chilling from an ethical perspective, is almost a foregone conclusion.

Jeff Shannon:

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