We'd all like to think that if our backs were up against it and we had to fight for our loved ones, we'd all become Liam Neeson in 'Taken.' Of course, not everyone has "a particular set of skills." Or maybe your skill is to try and appease everyone as chaos escalates around you, praying that, somehow, everything will work out if you just keep bluffing? That would appear to be the strategy of 'Graceland's' Marlon, a recently fired corrupt politician's chauffeur whose daughter had just been kidnapped.
His daughter wasn't the target, though. It was the similarly aged (but very differently raised) daughter of the Congressmen, but a mix-up puts a bullet in her chest before Marlon's daughter is taken. Marlon's daughter, Elvie (whose name is the only connection to the title I can surmise) is used as a pawn by the wild-eyed longhair of a kidnapper who demands a ransom from the Congressman, and now Marlon has to help.
Marlon, of course, is just a regular schnook. He kept his head low during his time with the Congressman, even though he knew he was diddling underage prostitutes. He did it due to his wife's illness and her much-needed operation. (At least, that's probably what he told himself.) After a leaked scandal that may've been due to Marlon's carelessness (or, perhaps, for actually caring) the Congressman is in the spotlight.
It's nothing a few bucks to the police can't cure, and since they're already on the payroll it's no trouble bringing them aboard to help plan a rescue of the child. Of course, only Marlon knows that the Congressman's child is actually dead, but he's got to play along to try and get Elvie back, all the while feeding information to the kidnappers.
'Graceland' is, no doubt about it, a film that'll tie you up in knots. As it makes its way down the dark river of child prostitution it can be quite difficult to watch. Despite some very frank moments, it doesn't feel exploitative. The uncomfortable images (and there are only a few) are earned because it rattles the audience into feeling what our characters are feeling. And then comes the plot twists.
There are three, count 'em, three plot twists in 'Graceland,' each worthy of their own "woah!" Far be it from me to divulge what they are, but know that the movie isn't doubling down on storytelling gimmicks. The world on display, modern day Manila, is a hard one, where morality is flexible and innocence is obsolete.
'Graceland' is also loaded with dynamite side characters. In particular is the undershirt-wearing detective, on-the-take, but also able to smell a rat where one exists.
Director Ron Morales shoots in a documentary style and doesn't aim for beauty. There are, however, occasional moments of perfect, isolated shots that tell a whole story in a fraction of a second. (Teddy bears on a made bed, for example, when the Congressman's wife learns her daughter is in peril.) The film is able to maintain a feeling of unique dread, quickly brushing aside comparisons to similar sounding films like 'High and Low' or 'Ransom.' It's also a film with which the Philippines Tourism Board is no doubt less than thrilled.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.