No Man’s Land (2021) Review
GOOD INTENTIONS (HEART AND INSIGHT)
CAN’T SAVE THIS MOVIE
The stories of US / Mexican border are often stranger than fiction; drawing inspiration from the real world of the border crossing, illegal immigrants, drug cartels, or political tensions. Thus, it comes at no surprise that Hollywood’s directors and writers take an interesting look at this particular location; drumming up cinematic efforts for dramatic set-pieces and narrative cues on such an area. Like the various different film genres, films about the US / Mexico border (whether largely focused on the area or a largely focus having characters crossing it for the story bult purposes) have ranged, including comedy with 2013’s We’re the Millers, thrillers such as 2016’s Desierto and 1996’s Lone Star, action suspense like 2015’s Sicario (and its 2018 sequel), to award-winning dramas like 2007’s No Country for Old Men, just to name a few. Now, IFC Films and director Connor Allyn present the latest cinematic offering surrounding characters and the area of the US / Mexico border in the movie No Man’s Land. Does this neo-western film deliver a poignant mean within its narrative context or is it a hodgepodge mess that’s flat and boring within its initial setup?
Bill Greer (Frank Grillo) is trying to run a cattle ranch near the Mexico border in Texas. Yet is struggling with the farm and managing it with bills piling up, putting his hopes in his first-born son, Jackson (Jake Allyn), who’s about to leave home for New York, accepting an invitation to play for a minor league baseball team. While trying wrangle up some lost cows that had escape, Bill, along with Jake and his younger son, Lucas (Alex McNicoll), are forced to round up their livestock and stumble upon a small collection of Mexicans walking across the Greer’s property; forcing the cowboy to investigate the situation further. During their trip, the family crosses paths with Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez), a seasoned organizer of migrant crossings, who brings his son, Fernando (Alessio Valentini), to America. Panic ensues between the two parties as an altercation erupts, with Lucas taking a bullet, while Feranado is gunned down by Jackson. As Bill attempts to frame the event as an accident, Jackson’s guilt gets the best of him. When local Texan officer Ramirez (George Lopez) comes looking to investigate the situation, Jackson flees, heading south into Mexico to escape arrest. On the run and with no set plan, Jackson learns more about the locals and experiences their generosity, while a grief-stricken Gustavo considers revenge by consulting local gangster thug, Luis (Andrés Delgado).
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Much like what I said in my opening paragraph, stories about the US / Mexico border (involving character or the surrounding area) seem almost ripe for a certain type of cinematic treatment. Granted there has been maneuvers made for narratives on the small screen, but a vast majority have come in the form of theatrical feature films. Of course, the subject matter can be a little bit sensitive, especially given the political atmosphere surrounding it, but also playing up the somewhat dated depictions of stereotyping Mexico and Latinos. Again, it’s kind of goes “hand in hand”, but it just depends on the movie itself and how it can either enlighten or entertaining viewers by using the story’s setting. Probably my personal favorite would be of Sicario. Yes, it’s a bit slow, but it definitely delivers plenty of gritty realism and fictional drama to make the film quite enjoyable. It’s sequel, however, is a bit of a mixed bad, but you can see check out my review for Sicario: Day of the Soldado for my opinion on that flick. Regardless, movies that center around the US / Mexico border will still offer some insight and intrigue into this “hot” area for clashing views of debate and conflict.
This brings me to talking about No Man’s Land, a 2021 film that tackles the issues of character along the US / Mexico border. To be quite frank, I really didn’t hear much about this movie prior to seeing it. Like a lot of movies being released in January 2021, the films that are being released have slim, with a lot of big major studios pulling back on the feature films due to the events of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, movie theaters are still feeling the after effect of such shuffling of movies, with several movie theater chains still closed. Because of this, there hasn’t been a whole lot of releases, with a lot of smaller low-budget films popping up here and there…. either in-theaters or on VOD streaming. While I had a day off from work, I was scrolling Fandango and I came across No Man’s Land. I read the small summary about it and viewed the trailer for it and, while I wasn’t immediately sold on the project, I decided to check it out; mostly because the movie was gonna be pushed out of my local movie theater (the only one that’s open during the pandemic in my area). So… what did I think of it? Well, it’s a disappointing one. While intentions are correct in a timely subject matter, No Man’s Land just hits a sour feeling of blandness and lacking drama in its nuances. The film’s heart is definitely in the right place, but its overall execution comes off wooden and clunky.
No Man’s Land is directed by Connor Allyn, whose previous directorial works includes such projects like Forsaken, Overexposed, and Walk. Ride. Rodeo. Given his past projects, Allyn makes No Man’s Land his most ambitious and topical film to date; approaching the movie with a sense of honesty and his heart in the right place. Perhaps the best aspect that Allyn achieves in the movie is in its “reverse immigrant” story as we (the viewers) follow main character of Jackson Greer and how a fatal decision can cost him and how he must examine some prejudices ideals and his own privileges, which gets turned upside down as he flees into Mexico’s territory. There, he finds more about himself and how everything is different from previous conveyed notions about the people of the land. Naturally, this speaks to the film’s topical issues of the political atmosphere of today’s current events. So, it definitely does resonate in shape or form in this regard and I do applaud Allyn for doing this, especially given the timely meaning of during today’s world of racism and prejudices running ramped. Plus, Allyn does make No Man’s Land have a redemption arc (and who doesn’t like that!) that mixes aspects of family, faith, and self-worth.
In the film’s presentation category, No Man’s Land meets the industry standards for a film with its limited budget. Granted the film does have smaller production budget, so I really didn’t expect the movie to be “explosive” or “grandiose” within its set-pieces or production quality. That being said, what’s presented works. Yes, one can tell were Allyn and his filmmaking team have to “play the rules” and make certain scenes and locations work within their budget, but I felt that majority of the film utilizes its parameters (minus a couple of scenes in a few areas). A lot of scenery and locations have that real-world sense and lends credibility to the feature’s story. I just wasn’t “wowed” by anything. Thus, it all kind of counterbalances as I didn’t think it was bad, but neither did I think it great (sort of even keel). There were a few cinematography shots in the movie that worked, so I do have mention the film’s cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez for efforts made in those sequences. Additionally, the movie’s composers of Brooke and Will Blair is okay as it gets the job done, but there is nothing granted or truly memorable about it. It just suffices.
Unfortunately, No Man’s Land suffers from numerous points of criticisms; rendering the movie in a rather straight-forward way that does little to entertain viewers. How so? Well, for starters, the movie, for the most part, feels clunky in in plot mechanics. Yes, I as mentioned above, the narrative is bit timely and meaningful and seeing certain scenarios play out. However, it’s all rendered in such a flat and boring way that it loses interest in both excitement and in engrossing entertainment. What does all the mean? Basically, No Man’s Land is a bore. Nothing really about it stands out from what’s been done previously in other similar narratives and everything about the film screams formulaic predictability, with very little or no surprises being presented in any shape or form. This results in making a lot of the poignant moments of the film’s narrative rather moot and the twists / curveballs the script throws at the viewers can be seeing coming miles away.
This main problem of the movie is combination that derives from Allyn’s direction and in the shaping of the feature’s script, which was penned by Jake Allyn (Connor’s brother and main lead of the film) and David Barraza. On Allyn’s direction, he just simply lacks the nuances to make the movie “coming alive”; trending a lot of familiarity of narrative / plot beats and lacking the tonal experience that he wants to convey while shooting No Man’s Land. In truth, Allyn wanted to probably make the feature feel like a neo-western drama that discusses meaningful topics about the US / Mexico border area, but ultimately ends up creating a film that runs parallel to an either a Hallmark / Lifetime TV movie endeavor or a faith-based drama film. While both those aspect can be deemed worthy (if done right), Allyn seems ill-equipped and falters in handling the film’s creativity moments; presenting No Man’s Land in a rather straight-forward way of a framework that’s done before, but to a lesser degree. In terms of the script by Allyn / Barraza, it hams it up with a few wonky character dialogue moments that seem rather shoehorned in and / or cheesy. Plus, as I said, the narrative of the story, while meaningful, feels derivate and bland in a cookie cutter. Also, the second act portion of the movie feels quite bloated and, while I get where they (Allyn / Barraza) were going with the story, it ultimately makes the film’s pacing unbalanced and the movie itself elongated more than it needed to be. Perhaps the biggest argument one can make about No Man’s Land script is in how one-sided the film’s story is and how it misses an opportunity to create interesting and different, given the movie’s plot. However, this aspect never comes to fruition, which results in the movie being a bit one-dimensional and a dried up script.
Then there is the film’s ending. It’s okay, but everything about it screams a bit hokey and predictable. The climax moments felt a bit underwhelming and (as I said) nothing felt refreshing or new as I predicted everything that was gonna happen. Plus, the film’s final two minutes feel “meh”. Everything kind of works out, but in way that ends No Man’s Land in an unsatisfying way. Seriously, I felt like I was missing something or a segment of the film when the movie’s credits began to roll. It’s just a bland conclusion to an otherwise bland movie.
The cast in No Man’s Land is okay-ish. Technically, there are not terrible as most of the acting in the film adequate, but the character themselves are mostly created in broad strokes and play up either conventional caricatures or cliched stereotypes, which (of course) hampers the movie and the ultimate viewing experience. In the lead position, actor Jake Allyn assumes the mantle of playing the feature’s protagonist character of Jackson Greer. Known for his roles in The Quad, The Baxters, and Run Sweetheart Run, Allyn physically looks like what one would picture in the character of Jackson: a tall good-looking young man with that midwestern / Texan drawl and swagger. So, from that standpoint, Allyn is fine. However, his acting is a bit wonky and he kind of lacks the experience needed in a few of the film’s more emotional / dramatic moments. He gets the characters and you definitely can see Allyn trying to convey his acting through various scenes for Jackson, but he ultimately feels stiff in the role and wooden his dialogue delivery. There is also a kind of minor relationship / friendship that Jackson finds in the movie in the character of Victoria, who is played by actress Esmeralda Pimentel (El Candidato and La vecina). While I get where the direction and script were going with Victoria, she ultimately is more plot point than meaningful side character; rendering most of Pimentel’s performance, which is okay, rather moot. Thus, despite his attempts, Allyn is pretty uninteresting as Jackson and as the film’s main lead.
In more of supporting roles, the film is somewhat anchored by the more seasoned veteran talents involved on this project, especially in the casting of actor Frank Grillo and actress Andie MacDowell as Jackson’s parents Bill and Monica Greer. Both are technically not the A-lister talents of current, yet Grillo (Warrior and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and MacDowell (Groundhog Day and Cedar Grove) ground the movie and both lend their weight to the feature in the moments that they are in. I did like their character themselves, with Grillo’s Bill being weary and struggling father figure to Jackson, who wants Jackson to be better than himself, while MacDowell’s Monica is effective as the concerned mother, who want her son to be happy. Yet, despite that, the characters themselves feel a bit clunky and are mostly shoehorned into the movie here and there; offering mechanical poignant meaning to their supporting roles. Kind of like a missed opportunity. The same can be ultimately said with seasoned actor George Lopez (Lopez and The Adventure of Sharkboy and Lavagirl), who just seems like a complete miscast in the role of Ramirez, a local sheriff who gets entangled with the pursuit of Jackson. Naturally, it’s a good change of pace for Lopez, which is probably why went for the role, but it really doesn’t bring anything new or unquiet to Ramirez; displaying a cookie cutter law enforcement character that we’ve all seeing played out before (moral judgements on what is right and wrong as the film progresses).
Perhaps the best supporting player in the entire movie is, more or less, an unknown, with actor Jorge A. Jimenez playing the role of Gustavo, the father of the young boy that Jackson kills in the movie. While not a household name, Jimenez (Narcos and Hermoso Silencio) has certainly been around and several projects, but I do have to say that his involvement in No Man’s Land is a palpable one. Yes, the character of Gustavo is a bit redundant and generic, but Jimenez gives a strong performance and certainly a good redemption arc to fulfill in the movie. It’s good, but again conventional in the grand scheme. While Jimenez’s Gustavo is the best that No Man’s Land has to offer, the character of Luis is perhaps the worst that the movie has to offer. How so? Well, to simply put it…Luis is such a over-the-top and cliched character that it comes off as a bit like an old-school video game-esque criminal character from one of the Grand Theft Auto games. He’s brash and thug and that’s how he’s best describe in the movie and how the script handles, especially riddled with cliches and stereotyping. Luis’s involvement in the movie is one of plot mechanics by acting as the antagonist, but its not even a warrant or good one. This is made further realized by actor Andrés Delgado’s (An Unknown Enemy and Tijuana) performance, who definitely plays up the whole cartoony aspects of Luis; making him goofier than a sizeable threat.
The rest of the cast, including actor Alex MacNicoll (13 Reasons Why and Transparent) as Jackson’s brother Lucas Greer, actor Juan Carlos Remolina (La Negociadora and Sitiados: Mexico) as Hector, actress Julieta Ortiz (Dirt and Criminal Minds) as Rosa, actress Ofelia Medina (Frida Still Life and Columbiana) as Lupe, and actor Iván Aragón (El Chapo and Tijuana) as Miguel, are designated to minor supporting players in the movie. Most of these characters are plot points on the various main characters journey, so their characters aren’t quite developed. However, I kind of expected that, so it didn’t bother me as much. That being said, most of the acting for these supporting talents are sufficient in their minor roles.
On the run and facing realization of his actions, Jackson Greer is caught up in the struggle with his own morals and by figuring out his next step of running from the law in the movie No Man’s Land. Director Connor Allyn’s latest film takes an interesting stance on the immigration; sparking a timely topic to present and given the feature a twist as a “reversal immigrant” tale for the narrative to chew on. Unfortunately, besides that and few nuances here and there, the movie itself is rendered poorly, which is due to the film’s direction, bland narrative structure, a formulaic story, sluggish pacing, a few mediocre acting, flat characters, and an unsatisfying ending. Personally, this movie was pretty boring. Yes, I get where Allyn was heading with this project, but, while appreciate the timely topical discussion of immigrants and prejudiced idealism, the film is rather predictable and unmemorable. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a “skip it” as it really doesn’t offer much in the way of cinematic quality storytelling nor in its creative medium. It’s best just to watch other films that tackle similar topics (you’ll get better milage out of them). In the end, No Man’s Land struggles to find middle ground in its own landscape; driving home good ideals to focus on, but lacking originality and entertainment by running out of steam and ideas in its age-old yarn of “walk-a-mile-in-their shoes”.
2.3 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: January 22nd, 2021
Reviewed On: February 10th, 2021
No Man’s Land is 114 minutes and is rated PG-13 for strong violence and language