With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.
In the Hostel-esque scenario Henry (Jake Muxworthy) and his virgin friend Phil (Rider Strong) are at a beach party in Galveston and convince their moody pal Ed (Brian Presley) to go on a road trip to a lawless Mexican border town where anything can happen. What happens is Ed forms an attached to a strong-willed bartender (Martha Higareda). After a night of decadence and doing mushrooms and going to a local carnival Phil disappears. When the police seem rather uncooperative a former cop Ulises (Damian Alacazar) tells them about a brutal cult leader/drug smuggler Santillan (Beto Cuevas) who is known for human sacrifices. Among his cult members are ruthless serial killers Gustavo (Marco Bacuzzi) who likes to gouge people's eyes out Luis (Roberto Sosa) who chops people's hands off and Randall (Sean Astin) who murders people but has a sense of humor about it. Ed and Henry decide to help Ulises find their friend before he becomes the cult's "gringo sacrifice."
The three buddies do a nice job. As Henry Muxworthy transforms from a renegade racist bully who looks down on the Mexican population to a whimpering coward who's terrified of the whole town. As Phil Strong is effective as an innocent well-meaning kid filled with the fear of fire and brimstone from his religious upbringing. He faces the cult clan with bravery and realism. Presley makes a good leading man who takes things into his own hands after falling for a strange woman in a strange land. Higareda reminds you of Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Her character laments that "life that is not fully lived is very sad.” Cuevas as the cult leader is particularly chilling especially when he reveals his full body tattoo while taking a bath after a human sacrifice. And Astin seems to relish this delicious role as a bad guy who comes off as friendly with a great sense of humor--but he is ultimately as deadly as the rest. Writer and director Zev Berman tries to bring a human side to the real story of the satanic cult and mass graves found in a Mexican border town. It made headlines in the early 1990s and still remains unsolved in some areas. It's gruesome and frightening because of the helpless claustrophobic feel of the town that doesn't offer to help. Perhaps because of the constraints of the reality-based story Borderland is also a bit predictable. The ending is perhaps the most disappointing with the survivors simply walking off into the desert while text rolls on the screen telling you what really happened. Berman appropriately writes in a great deal of humor into a very gruesome situation however and those laughs make the film worthwhile.