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'Graceland': Stylish and slick
By Kate Erbland, Special to MSN Movies

The kidnapping revenge thriller gets a twist in Ron Morales' "Graceland," as the actioner attempts to flip the script on both convention and expectation, mostly to mixed results. Television star Arnold Reyes headlines the mostly Filipino cast as a seemingly average man caught up in forces far beyond his control, a father driven to the edge when his young daughter is taken from him. It's a standard sort of plotline, but "Graceland" smartly builds in key pieces of additional exposition, with even the most minor detail proving important.

Bing: Arnold Reyes

Reyes' Marlon Villar is a longtime employee of the corrupt (and, as we soon learn, perverted and sexually deviant) politician Manuel Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias), and his personal troubles have blinded him to the fact that he has become complicit to some of Changho's worst transgressions. Heartsick over his ill wife, struggling to care for their young daughter, Marlon is beleaguered and thus completely unequipped to deal with an afternoon kidnapping attempt aimed at Changho's own young daughter. When the crime goes awry, it is Marlon's own child who is taken, and the regular guy must go to extreme means to get her back from her ruthless and calculating kidnapper (an adept Leon Miguel), unaided by a suspicious (and corrupt) police force and the ever-more-nefarious Changho.

After a jaw-dropping burst of violence in the first act, the middle of "Graceland" falls surprisingly flat, and though its repetitive nature seems in place to continually build on Marlon's desperation and isolation, Reyes is more than capable in his role, and his performance doesn't need to be trumped up to make it effective. Though a late-breaking twist attempts to shock viewers and make them reconsider everything that has already occurred in the film, it's the sort of cinematic "gotcha!" move that has been pulled before and will be used again.

What the film lacks in plot originality, it makes up for with slick style and impressive technical elements. Its gritty, handheld camerawork and dark, muted palette are pitch-perfect mood setters, and even when the film's script isn't up to snuff, its look and feel keep it clipping along as a mostly entertaining thriller with brief dashes of brilliance. The film is writer and director Morales' second feature, but the former key grip has worked on such diverse projects as "Michael Clayton," "The Departed," "Spider-Man 3," and "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," a wide cross-section of big budget films that have surely helped shape his unique point of view and style.

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Kate Erbland is a contributing writer for MSN Movies, a critic for Boxoffice Magazine, and an associate editor for Film School Rejects. She has been writing about movies since 2008, but has been thinking about movies for far longer. She lives in Los Angeles.

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