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Leguizamo is the real thing in ‘Cronicas’

Story of a reporter investigating a serial killer in Ecuador. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

In its exploration of TV journalism, “Cronicas” offers this update: John Leguizamo can act, not just ham it up with comic antics.

It’s something we haven’t seen him do for a while — and it’s powerful to behold. Lately he’s appeared in throwaway comedies like “The Honeymooners” and thrillers like “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Land of the Dead.”

His portrayal of a Geraldo Rivera-esque reporter is even more remarkable when you consider that this is the first time the Colombian-born, New York-bred Leguizamo has acted in Spanish, a language he doesn’t usually speak.

But it helps a great deal that he has meaty material to sink his teeth into. In telling the story of a TV news crew from Miami investigating a serial killer in a small Ecuadorean town, writer-director Sebastian Cordero (whose only previous film was 1999’s “Rodents”) delves into issues of news versus entertainment, of reporting a story versus manipulating it.

In keeping with the realism supplied by the film’s gritty, documentary-style aesthetic — Enrique Chediak (“The Good Girl,” “Boiler Room”) is the cinematographer — Cordero finds there are no easy answers.

It’s easy to see, though, why directors Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”) and Guillermo Del Toro (“Cronos”) were drawn to this project and signed on as producers. They’ve made careers out of films that feature fleshed-out characters in morally ambiguous situations like Leguizamo’s Manolo Bonilla.

This is a guy who stands back while a man is being beaten and burned by an angry mob, and urges his cameraman (Jose Maria Yazpik) to shoot it all.

“You’re too close,” Manolo says to Ivan at one point. “You have to be invisible.”

And yet if he and his crew don’t get that footage, if they don’t report what’s happening right in front of them in this village that’s been devastated by the murders of its young, aren’t they remiss?

Manolo thinks he’s onto something during an interview with the badly beaten Vinicio (Damian Alcazar, in a profoundly multilayered performance), a Bible salesman who’s in jail for running over a boy with his truck — a boy whose twin brother, one of the serial killer’s victims, had just been buried.

Vinicio says he has information about “The Monster of Babahoyo,” as the suspect is known, but he’ll only divulge it if Manolo does a story about Vinicio’s wrongful imprisonment. Manolo, meanwhile, suspects he’s sitting across from the monster himself.

As he gets further into the story, he’s learning information about the killer that police don’t even know. Deep down, Manolo probably wants to do the right thing — or at least he did when he got into this business — but now he’s “talent.” He already gets stopped for photos and autographs, but he wants to be the hero. And this sort of sensationalistic story is the ideal springboard for his career.

“This story wouldn’t exist without us!” Manolo insists indignantly when disagreements erupt within the crew.

His producer, Marisa (the incredibly natural Leonor Watling), is as competitive as he is about getting the story first, but her emotions get mixed up when she and Manolo sleep together. Marisa also happens to be married to the show’s anchor (Alfred Molina, adding heft in his own rare Spanish-speaking role).

The show, “One Hour With the Truth,” isn’t overtly tabloidy. Cordero wisely refrains from satirizing the news heavy-handedly, which makes “Cronicas” even more relevant — even though it loses steams as it reaches its conclusion.

The way the video is edited, the graphics, the voiceover — this could be any prime-time news magazine program on network television any night of the week.