I must be one of the few regular moviegoers in the English-speaking world not to have seen (and loved) Jared Hess's Napoleon Dynamite. Seeing Hess's follow-up Nacho Libre, however, doesn't make me any more keen to rectify my oversight via DVD – but nor has it exactly put me off. This is a middling sort of midsummer-multiplexy comedy – an amiably daft and undemanding vehicle for the exuberant skills of its star Jack Black, moderately enjoyable while it's on, forgettable enough when it's over.
Saying that, there can't be many films which might have found equal favour with both Kent Walton (1917-2003) and Luis Bunuel (1900-1983): the former ITV Saturday-afternoon wrestling commentator ("greetings, grapple-fans!") would surely have welcomed a story which brings the cult, insanely colourful Mexican combat-sport known as lucha libre to worldwide attention; the iconoclastic surrealist might well get a kick out of the kinkily naughty subcurrent of anti-clericalism that occasionally surfaces, as well as approving of director Hess' decision to film entirely in Mexico (Xavier Perez Grobet's colour-saturated cinematography is an unexpected, consistent pleasure) and cast in supporting roles the kind of craggy oldster who would often enliven Bunuel's own "south of the border" productions.
And though a Cairo-born Brit, Walton famously cultivated a Canadian-sounding 'transatlantic' accent in his professional work: Nacho Libre, though entirely populated by Mexican characters, has them all speaking English (occasionally Spanglish) with an inflection that suggests Speedy Gonzales may have been employed as a dialect coach. This is especially true with the case of Black's Ignacio, raised as an orphan in a rural Oaxaca monastery where he eventually rises to the thankless post of cook. But Ignacio has, since childhood, dreamed of glory and adulation as one of the masked heroes of lucha libre (Kendo Nagasaki would be the closest British equivalent). The arrival at the monastery of demure, knockout nun Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera) spurs him to action: with the help of feral street-robber Esqueleto (a suitably bony Hector Jimenez), 'Nacho' takes to the ring in his own ill-fitting, self-assembled costume. But the hectic world of lucha libre provides a steep learning-curve for the hapless pair.
Anyone seeking a sober, analytical look at minor-league Mexican sporting endeavour is advised to look elsewhere: programmer in search of a chalk-cheese pairing should team Nacho Libre with the harrowing fly-on-the-bull documentary Toro Negro. Hess's script – co-written with his wife Jerusha and their pal Mike White (cf Black's School of Rock) – is a deliberately silly, mock-heroic confection ("I am the gatekeeper of my own destiny, and I will have my day of glory in the hot sun") which simultaneously spoofs and celebrates the conventions of lucha libre (and, to a lesser extent, the cultish domain that is lucha libre cinema) rather in the vein of the Coen brothers' bowling-alley magnum opus The Big Lebowski (to which they obliquely nod with the casting of Coens veteran Peter Stormare in a typically berserk, kohl-eyed, boat-bound cameo.)
Given this set-up, and the presence of Black, we'd be forgiven for expecting a side-splitting laugh-riot. But most audiences will emerge from Nacho Libre with their sides safely unsplit: though consistently amusing, laugh-out-loud moments are few and far between – including the deliriously daft entrance of two tag-team, elaborately costumed and coiffed midgets who battle as 'Satan's Cavemen.' Hess and company take the established triumphant-underdog sports-movie template (cf Cinderella Man, to name the most noxious recent example) and use it as a framework for a series of dopey skits – and while a few of these simply don't come off – the moment where Black delivers a love-song in Tenacious D fashion is the thuddiest dud – the overriding air of camp/macho cheesiness is hard to resist.
20th August, 2006
NACHO LIBRE : [6/10] : USA (US/Mex) 2006 : Jared HESS : 92 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Odeon cinema, MetroCentre, Gateshead (UK), 7th August 2006 – press show