For any thinking person, little in Josef Kubota Wladyka's fleet and sweaty Colombian-smuggler thriller Manos Sucias will surprise. Drug-running is work for the broke and desperate; the runners might be less broke after a delivery, but that desperation only grows worse; killing is grim and painful. But as it dashes up the coast and railroads through the jungle, the film is vigorous in its evocation of place and prickling and insistent with its suspense. Those punishing truths come to feel like mere probabilities we hope against hope first-time smuggler Delio (Cristian Abvincula) might beat.
The title translates to Dirty Hands, so you know it's not going to end well. Delio and his older brother Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) putter up the Colombian coast in a rustbucket skiff, towing a torpedo stuffed with drugs. The idea is that when they're stopped by gun-toting officials, they can let the torpedo sink and then haul it back up. Their journey is as sunny and beautiful as it is poisoned with tension. Wladyka mounts the camera to the front of the boat, and later to a motorcycle rigged to skim along train tracks in the jungle, so that we can gape at the scenery even as we're hurled along -- like its runners, the film rarely slows down. Early on, you might find a breath to relax a little, to hope this will all turn out to be an adventure. But Wladyka's too honest to let his characters buck the odds. When the killing starts, it's hard to shake the realization that the men who die could have been the protagonists of their own tough-minded yet empathetic crime films.