Since the transfer of my original blogspot to a more optimal wordpress platform on July 8, 2018, I’ve taken an interest in re-editing and republishing some select interviews and articles for better, cleaner presentation. The following piece was previously published on March 4, 2015.
It’s not everyday you get to see a Puerto Rican-produced martial arts film…well, at least it felt that way until about 2011 with the rollout of director Andres Ramírez‘s action adventure, El Testigo (The Witness). Featuring the stylings of lead actor, writer and stunt coordinator Jose Manuel, the film was ultimately the first of its kind in Puerto Rico to reportedly cater to the martial arts movie niche. It’s earned its share of awards and nominations for a reason, and while the genre is still slow to take in Puerto Rico among other parts of the world, one can only hope that the slow nature of progress in today’s film industry will bring necessary change so more films like these get made. As for El Testigo, I had the honor of screening the film for myself this week and if this review ultimately means your own discovery of the film, by all means, keep reading.
Manuel plays Chelo, a normal everyday hardworking man who works out, lives with his girlfriend, dog lover and grade school home room teacher Cristina (Melissa Serrano), and works a steady job with crazy co-worker and best friend Carlos (Carlos Alfonso). One day Chelo sets out to go dog hunting for Cristina at her request only to find himself somewhat lost in the area he’s in. Incidentally, he stumbles upon an alley where a group of men are harrassing someone before one of them pulls out a gun and shoots the victim at point blank range. Hearing the gunshot, Chelo turns to what’s happened and sees he’s been spotted by the unknown gunman and assailants with him, and he tries to make a steady run for it before knowingly having to try and fight his way away to survive. Soon enough, bodies start piling up and the men catch up, kidnapping Cristina in the process and leaving Chelo to the will of the local police, and it’s only while at the station that he makes a shocking discovery that will inherently endanger Cristina’s life, as well as his own. Now framed for the murder of three people, including the death of two cops, Chelo is a wanted man in the eyes of the law and the media and it’s up to him to find a way to rescue Cristina and clear his name before it’s too late, with no choice but to go after the country’s most wanted crimeboss himself.
Despite the film’s grim setting, El Testigo does present its fair dosage of quirky humor and likeable characters. A lot of the acting was convincing and very good and exemplifies Manuel‘s ability to hold a leading role as an charming actor as well as a talented screenfighter. I absolutely enjoyed his chemistry with Serrano‘s character as well as her own performance throughout the film as she shares as much of the intensity that occurs in the film from start to finish, and she even gets in on the action a few times alongside Manuel which I thought was useful and illustrative. The same approval can be stated for Alfonso‘s role as the film’s comedy relief, and it certainly takes good writing to keep a film like this well balanced between moments of laughter and gloom and doom without losing track of the narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed Alfonso‘s scenes as many times as he and Manuel had me laughing, even when the action picked up at one point near the third act. I also commend the respective performances of actors Josean Vaquer, Manolo Castro and Jorge Antares – the latter who plays the villain, Federico Lopez. He wears a pair of sunglasses most of the time though it doesn’t get in the way of his performance as Antares is a truly fine actor and it fit the role quite nicely.
Of course, with the film’s main ingredient being the martial arts action, Manuel certainly holds his own as the lead star and stunt coordinator. Just a few of the shots and angles were a bit too darkly-lit and tight, but most the action sequences were awesome to watch as Manuel and the stunt performers got free reign to stretch their muscles within various locations, performing exciting parkour sequences and fast fight choreography with excellent wideshots when needed. The biggest highlight in all this is the subplot that takes place in with Manuel opposite co-star and fight choreographer Gil Sanabria, who plays Gil, the disenfranchised son of his father’s organization now working as a hitman under Lopez. While Sanabria‘s strongest suit is the action, he does get a few decent moments illustrating himself as more of an actor, and it shows in certain scenes where the narrative finds his character dealing with his ego, now challenged by Chelo’s formidability, as well as envy and vindictiveness toward Lopez. It all unfolds very nicely by the end with high drama, big stunts and fast action, with a dash of comedy, touching romance and poignance to boot, and none of the film suffers at the very least.
A film like El Testigo comes greatly accomodated by an already brewing community of online stuntmen and filmmakers alike looking to gain notoriety. The film’s earlier iteration came in the form of a 2009 action shortfilm under the same title with performances by Manuel and Sanabria, and obviously its potential is what led to the film in the first place, and the film festival accolades it accumulated in 2012. Still, the fact is that Puerto Rico, much like other parts of the world, is still stagnant when it comes to producing films like these despite the available talent at hand and the inevitable calling from fans and critics like myself.
Hopefully in time, the slow nature of filmmaking these days will start to pick up steam for folks like Ramírez, as well as Manuel and Sanabria in the realm of feature-length territory. There’s no shortage on the need for more hard-hitting martial arts films in this day and age, and for El Testigo, that’s a statement worth testifying to.
El Testigo is available on DVD wherever sold, and is also up to watch through Vimeo-On-Demand.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.