A nihilistic exercise in misogyny, sadism, murder, and revenge, Hispanic helmer Alfonso Pineda Ulloa’s unsavory actioneer “There Are No Saints” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) pulls no punches in its relentless depiction of mayhem and mutilation. “Taxi Driver” scenarist Paul Schrader has recycled elements from his better films for this abrasive, R-rated, shoot’em up that cuts its unsavory anti-hero no slack.

The mere threat of death and dismemberment was once enough to make audiences cringe. Now, filmmakers must resort to greater extremes. Most of the violence depicts hair-trigger gangsters swapping lead and smashing heads. Exciting and suspenseful, these episodic displays of fireworks and fisticuffs will gratify adrenalin junkies.

Some violence, however, is clearly repellent. Our protagonist pins a woman’s hands to a table with steak knives when she refuses to answer his questions. Audaciously, Ulloa and Schrader seek to align our sympathies with this protagonist who is an utterly vile specimen of humanity.

Neto Niente (José María Yazpik of “The Obscure Spring”), the last person anybody would want to tangle with under any circumstances, has been rotting away on death row.

As the film unfolds, Niente discovers he will be released from prison after four years. A Texas State Trooper dying from terminal cancer had confessed to planting incriminating evidence that convicted Niente.

Once out of his Huntsville Prison cell, this felon sets out to see his young son, Julio (Keidrich Sellati of “Rockaway”), who worships him as if he were a saint. Julio paints messianic portraits of Niente suffering on the cross. Our protagonist struggles to set his son straight. Meantime, when Niente mentions forsaking the cartel, a former associate warns him about the fallout.

Predatory pistoleros will pony up at the prospect of carving out a reputation when they hear about Niente’s decision to go AWOL. Before he was locked up, Niente had forged a reputation as a vicious cartel enforcer. Everybody called him ‘the Jesuit’ because he could loosen tongues with the same skill as that notorious order of priests during the wicked Spanish Inquisition.

Once out of prison, Niente visits his ex-wife, Nadia (Paz Vega of “Spanglish”), who has taken up with Vincent Rice (Neal McDonough of “Boon”), a depraved gun runner. Meantime, Nadia shields young Julio from his dastardly dad. Nevertheless, she cannot prevent Julio from slipping out to see his father.

When he learns Niente has been seen with Nadia, Vincent blows a gasket and sends his hired gunsels to whack her. During the fracas, a Texas State Trooper, who had been tailing Niente, is caught accidentally in the crossfire and killed. Grabbing Julio at gunpoint, Vincent escapes and flees to Mexico.

The gun runner uses Niente’s son to pay off a long-standing debt to a maniacal, ex-ATF agent, Sans (Ron Perlman of “Hellboy”), holed up in a fortress in the middle of the Mexican jungle. Sans craves danger like candy. Kidnapping high profile people is his specialty.

Niente traces the machine guns that Vincent had bought to a sleazy arms dealer, Jet Rink (Tommy Flanagan of “Ronin”), who runs a strip bar. Along the way, one of Rink’s bartenders falls for Niente.

From the moment she lays eyes on him in the club, Inez (Shannyn Sossamon of “Wristcutters: A Love Story”), knows this stone-cold killer is her kind of crush. Niente relies on Inez’s ample cleavage to distract Border Patrol Guards from searching his car. Had the cops uncovered his cache of weapons, Niente would have landed back in Huntsville.

Director Alfonso Pineda Ulloa maintains muzzle velocity throughout “Saints” with few lulls as Niente tracks down his kidnapped son. Several clashes with cartel gunmen and private bodyguards galvanize this 105-minute melodrama, and Ulloa orchestrates these skirmishes with a visual flair.

A ruckus in the strip club restroom where Niente disarms three pugnacious, pistol-packing pendejos sizzles with spontaneity. “Kickboxer: Vengeance” lenser Mateo Londono shoots the combat sequences so they have a larger-than-life quality. Despite its riveting violence, Ulloa soft-pedals some of the more harrowing savagery.

Several well-known veteran actors, like Tommy Flanagan, Tim Roth, and Ron Perlman, spend no more than ten minutes on screen. They are never seen together but dominate their own individual scenes.

The title “There Are No Saints” reflects Paul Schrader’s obsession with haunted males seeking redemption. A fleeting moment in a Catholic church when Niente ponders the straight and narrow after all his carnage adds a touch of gravitas. “Self-sacrifice is the way to lead a just life,” a priest advises Niente.

The Biblical allusion to ‘the sins of the father’ in Exodus chapter 20:5 imparts a modicum of philosophical content. Nevertheless, when events during the final quarter hour take a shocking turn, some spectators may shrink at the outcome of this ugly chronicle.


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