A mismatched group of marginal Los Angeles characters gets together to rip off the home of a pompous TV pitch man. It’s partly personal revenge by one member of the hastily assembled gang, but the main motivation is payback for the pitch man’s unscrupulous business practice of selling quack pseudomedical “miracle cures” to his unsophisticated audience of low-income recent immigrants — preying on that audience’s unfamiliarity with the American system.
If that sounds like a fairly hackneyed comic heist scenario, you’re right. But this particular variation on Ocean’s Eleven (or Big Deal on Madonna Street, etc.) is worth noting because of who’s pulling the caper, the city they’re doing it in, the language they’re speaking, and the fact that Lionsgate, the film’s distributor, is sending Ladrón que Roba a Ladrón into mainstream multiplexes just as it is: a Spanish-language comedy starring actors most Americans don’t recognize, but set in the familiar streets of Southern California. That’s to say, an American comedy for the other America.
The title comes from an old proverb: Ladrón que roba a ladrón tiene cien años de perdón — a thief who robs a thief receives a hundred years of forgiveness. The target is one Moctezuma Valdez, a former hood gone respectable who now markets such snake-oil products as Agua de Dios and Kema-Krema to poor people, via his TV studio. On the air, Valdez (played by former futbolero Saúl Lisazo) comes across as an amalgam of George Clooney and Burt Reynolds, with a dash of Robert Forster. Despite his ultra-Mexican given name, Moctezuma is actually from Argentina. The new name is a cynical calculation and his racket is ripe for a takedown.
The two ringleaders who bring us up to speed on the sleazy Moctezuma are his former pickpocket partner Emilio (Miguel Varoni), first seen arriving in Los Angeles for the job, and Alejandro (Fernando Colunga), an ambitious street peddler with a handsome face, the better to infiltrate the rich man’s circle. Actor Varoni is Colombian, Colunga from Mexico, and the other actors come from Cuba, Venezuela, and various parts of the Spanish-speaking world, but their other common denominator is that their characters all live side-by-side with English-speaking Angelenos who know next to nothing about them. That’s part of the point screenwriter José Angel Henrickson and director Joe Menendez are making — that the United States, at least in certain places, is truly multicultural, so we should get used to it.
It takes a few reels for the klutzy crew to work up to speed, but by the time they crash Moctezuma’s lavish house party en route to his safe full of cash, director Menendez (a native New Yorker raised in Miami) and his cast let fly a barrage of funny sight gags peppered with sly crosscultural commentary. Miguelito (Oscar Torre) is a Cuban would-be actor with near-terminal stage fright; tomboyish Rafaela (Ivonne Montero) is a tough auto mechanic; muscle-bound Anival (Gabriel Soto) has to crawl into Moctezuma’s air-con system and dig a tunnel; and Gloria the niñera (Argentine actor Julie Gonzalo) is the inside member of the team.
Practically all the actors are veterans of telenovelas, the hugely popular video dramas that are the staple of Latino TV. By that measure, Ladrón que Roba should probably also be consigned to the small screen, but the people involved had higher hopes for it. Claims producer James McNamara in the press notes: “In the US, there are three Spanish-language TV networks, seven hundred radio stations, a couple thousand Spanish-language newspapers. But who is making commercial Spanish-language films for that market? Nobody.”
And so those of us whose Spanish is a bit rusty get taken for a ride, complete with snappy patter and satirical putdowns, such as when Alejandro “browns up” his face to break into Moctezuma’s TV studio and steal data, disguised as a janitor. While there, he and his accomplice encounter the archetypal slob white guy, a waddling security guard who shoos the “dumb Mexicans” out of Moctezuma’s office by yelling at them to learn English. The reply comes quick: “Hey, you’re in America. Learn Spanish!” There’s a class antagonism here that goes beyond the language difference, courtesy of writer Henrickson, a third-generation Mexican American from McAllen, Texas. The thieves are trying to dispense social justice. Who’s the chief beneficiary of the heist? The parish priest, plus everyone who ever ordered one of “infomercial guru” Moctezuma’s worthless products. You don’t see Danny Ocean spreading the wealth around like that.