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Published: Friday, 12/1/2006

Movie review: Turistas *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Why fly? Why fly when we can take this rickety bus along dangerous Brazilian overhangs, high in a mountain range far from any Starbucks? This is the first mistake. Alex (Josh Duhamel) and his sister (Olivia Wilde) agree to meet the locals. He thinks they speak Spanish (they speak Portuguese). A white woman takes a picture with a native child - a parent fearful of black-market kidnapping freaks out. (Stay out of Brazil, Madonna. Helpful tip.)

Anyway, the bus tips (of course) and our hot young backpackers find themselves stranded in a village, where they meet Brits named Liam and Finn (of course) and an Australian (Melissa George), and they dance all night and drink too much and wake up in the morning (helpfully) with their pants missing and only this lonesome bikini to provide cover. They don't speak the language, but the locals do (naturally) and when you hear them speak this weird foreign language to one another - well, they're plotting against us, yes?

Or am I paranoid?

Their graffiti says, "Turistas go home!" But their eyes - oh, their soulless, sinister, alien eyes, and their barely contained snickering - are more cunning. These Brazilians, they are from a monstrous netherworld, yes? They leer. Their faces hold masks of boredom, but when they speak, it is a relief: "Stay. Please. Take advantage of our economically disadvantaged peoples. Use our village as your playground for sex and binge drinking. Hang around. We might surprise you."

Oh, see? We're safe here.

Which is of course, the classic torture-porn horror flick set-up: Turistas, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, places a small group of nubile, second-billed TV actors in a bad spot, far from home, which at first seems like a harmless spot, a bit unfamiliar, the sheriff is kinda creepy, but we're young, we're savvy, we've got money - what could possibly happen?

Turistas opens with an ominous taste of things to come: We see a woman on an operating table. She begs for her life. We see the reflection of a doctor. He has begun removing organs, and he has not - oopsy daisy - administered the proper amount of anesthesia. You won't be needing a liver now, will you? Squish. And who needs this kidney? Squish.

Guess who does need it?

Poor third-world kids - exploited by the U.S. steamroller.

In short, the ads are selling Turistas as a Brazilian version of Hostel, and though this is more of a tension-free thriller than a tension-free hack 'em up, the comparison is spot on. To director John Stockwell's credit (I think), this is torture porn with a message (I think). And that message is: We are ignorant of a world that doesn't like us much.

Actually, they hate our guts.

But they'll take 'em.

If you didn't already have a good reason for turning inward this holiday season and cocooning in the comfort of your home - gas prices, terrorism, a war without end, Pamela Anderson's latest divorce - the movies are always there to exploit a reason you might not have considered, and lately the movies have done a fine job of exploiting our fear that we are indeed an isolated, navel-gazing nation of arrogant bigots and the world is plotting. The tour bus scene reminds me of the shooting in Babel, and the entire premise of Hostel (where American tourists are punished just for being Americans) is mirrored here; then there is Borat, and the idea that this dim-witted foreigner you are patronizing is quietly setting you up for a fall.

Man, we really are paranoid.

Turistas is pretty inept; the underwater finale is so hard to read and murky, I had no idea who killed whom. The villain gets to explain to his underlings precisely why he committing atrocities - 15 minutes into the film. Stockwell's previous movies crazy/beautful, Blue Crush, and Into the Blue are not without good points and recurring themes: Beyond his affinity for trouble in paradise, here is a director who shoots the female butt with the reverence David Lean reserved for Arabian deserts and bundled-up Bolsheviks.

That said, Hollywood is an evergreen barometer of what ails us, and Turistas is probably the first mainstream genre flick to explicitly come out and say we don't understand the world, we don't speak other languages, and the world is fed up. However, I wonder how this will play in Brazil. (Remember how Black Hawk Down was cheered in parts of Africa?) I wonder because Stockwell botches the point so badly it begins to look like xenophobia.

These turistas aren't so bad. They're naive and sheltered; they lack tact. But is that grounds for unsolicited organ removal? We all feel nervous far from home. It's a valid point, and interesting for a quickie like this. But what does it say when a movie about our ignorant image of third-world savages who only mean us harm confirms every anxiety? I think it says - we're in trouble.



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