For a movie about serial killings and media sensationalism, ''Cronicas" sure is wimpy.
Even with its mostly Spanish-language story centering on a murderous South American pedophile dubbed the Monster of Babahoyo, nothing in this would-be thriller grabs you by the throat, never mind reaches down to your guts. It's as if writer-director Sebastian Cordero (''Ratas, Ratones, Rateros") is afraid of getting his hands too dirty in the making of his art. Except that ''Cronicas" isn't very artful.
The weaknesses begin with plot. When a bilingual team of Miami-based tabloid TV journalists descends on Ecuador to exploit the families of the serial killer's victims, star reporter Manolo Bonilla (John Leguizamo) lands in the middle of a mob scene. A local man named Vinicio (Damian Alcazar) has just accidentally run over a boy with his truck, and is being pummeled by angry witnesses who think he's trying to flee the scene.
Manolo intervenes mostly as a way to play the on-camera hero, but his actions have an unintended result. The battered driver, carted off to jail along with the victim's vengeful father, sees Manolo as a savior and offers to spill some newsworthy information in exchange for a sympathetic TV portrait that could set him free. How sensational are the cards Vinicio's holding? He claims to know intimate details about Babahoyo's monster man, whom he says he met during his travels as a Bible salesman.
Understandably, Manolo is skeptical, as are his cameraman (Jose Maria Yazpik) and producer (Leonor Watling). But Manolo presses on because Vinicio knows things -- things that could mean he really was the killer's confidant, or things that could mean he actually is the killer. Either way spells potential ratings.
Spoiler rules aside, you don't want to be told how this all shakes out because that would reveal how far credibility is stretched, how little adds up, and how much Cordero's film resembles a tabloid headline that delivers on only a fraction of its promises. Despite surface come-ons that are often entertaining and intriguing, the movie fizzles every time it has a chance to go deeper. And good luck figuring out why the director draws a line at showing some things (the gruesome reality of that young truck-accident victim, for example), but has no problem fully exploiting others (Vinicio beaten to a pulp, set on fire, and almost lynched).
Even at its boldest, is any of what winds up on screen really supposed to have shock value for 21st-century viewers? Sadly, you've probably seen much worse on CNN.
The parts of ''Cronicas" that do distinguish themselves are Enrique Chediak's vibrant cinematography, Antonio Pinto's mood-perfect music, and Alcazar's perfectly ambiguous portrayal of Vinicio, who succeeds in being both sympathetic and chilling. Leguizamo does his job too, but his character is a self-involved, unconscionable climber, so it's sort of hard to applaud him.
The English translation of ''Cronicas" is ''chronicles" or ''news reports." Too bad so much of this movie feels like old ground covered by filmmakers without teeth.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.