Four years after landing on our radar with 2018’s multi-award winning short, Black Betty, up-and-coming director Nicholas Ortiz has long since stayed the course with developments on his endeavors, ultimately landing one of his more larger projects to date out of his Deviant Children Productions banner.
Jettisoning out to Tijuana, Mexico last summer for the independent short production of action crime thriller, Jugando Con Fuego, Ortiz is joined by none other than R4 Films LLC, whose Robert Samuels has been a working staple in the Nothern East Coast indie film community between Pennsylvania, New Jersey and neighboring New York City.
To boot, Samuels, a veteran member of the heralded Hong Kong Stuntman’s Association who’s credits are shared with the likes of Jackie Chan, Frankie Chan, Yuen Woo Ping and Sammo Hung, continues to apply his trade on both sides of the lens. He successively segues here from his previous Hong Kong comedy ode co-starring in Joey Min’s Yes, Auntie (2019), to a more brooding, contemporary setting that levels up the audience engagement through cinematography – the action design and direction courtesy of Team OneTake, and Mexico’s own B Squad Producciones de Acción.
At just over a half-hour, Jugando Con Fuego immediately dives into the omnious and gruesome imagery that sets up our hero’s journey, having survived a near-fatal assault by a gang of criminals who descend on his home, kidnap his wife and leave him for dead. That CIA retiree James Forge (Samuels) manages to survive said attack, of course, is not enough, and with the help of the only friend he has left, Miguel (Armando Blackguard), Forge must tread carefully if he’s to rescue the woman he loves from the sinister clutches of notorious crime figure, Tony Lobo (Hector Soria) and the lightning-fast bodyguards who protect him.
In its assembly, Jugando Con Fuego feels like an abbreviated conceptual delivery that probably would have fared well as a ninety-minute feature. There isn’t much filler to wait or sift through in this particular incarnation though, and so you get a story that gets right down to the nitty gritty, highlighting several key story points to include character backgrounds and certain events that help culminate what’s happening as it plays out before the audience.
The project is a bilingual affair as well, which makes the chemistry between Forge and Miguel all the more interesting. You can chalk it all up to a friendship that bodes with more understanding and closeness than some, which is admirable, and conveys an idea about the way filmmakers write characters that isn’t totally far-fetched. Think Shaobo Qin’s portrayal of Yen against a slew of all English-speaking characters in Steve Soderbergh’s Oceans franchise, or other examples you’d welcome in this comparison.
Fans watching this short may also get a kick out of some of the Hong Kong cinema nods Ortiz invokes in this project, including and especially Lobo’s overall look and costume, and attributions. If the image of a certain character in a not-too-distant crime thriller from 2006 doesn’t escape you, you’re not alone. It especially helps that the action here is coordinated and performed by an equally competent team, partly reuniting Ortiz with Soria and fight choreographer Orlando Candelario once more since Black Betty, with the addition of FCSyndicate favorite Jose Manuel added to the mix; To further tickle your fancy, Manuel plays “Guapo”, one of Lobo’s bodyguards alongside the short and nimble Nissa, played by Roxalinda Vazquez. There’s a three-way fight scene they share with Samuels, and it’s by far the best action moment in the shortfilm.
I also reckon this latest stint will also have its share of stories by Soria who also gets to tussel with Samuels by the end. Back during the screening and Q&A for Yes, Auntie, co-star Leroy Nguyen talked a bit about fighting Samuels on screen and some of the bruising and welts that came due to Samuel’s own conditioning as a veteran stuntman. If that’s the case I can only imagine Soria could attest to this all the same, even with his own training.
I’m definitely interested in more of what Ortiz has to offer, and if nothing else in play, I’m inclined to think he’s still got an itch to get Black Betty off the ground for a greater, more evolved incarnation. Jugando Con Fuego certainly adds some much deserved mileage to his resumè, and it would be pretty cool to see Samuels carry a lead role for an equally larger project after this. Years after proving himself under the grueling and tenacious demands of some of Hong Kong’s best and greatest, Samuels’s still got some fuego left – something folks will soon learn as new shortfilm hits this year’s film festival circuitry.