The time it takes to conceive, pitch, and produce a movie may account for all the border wall stories we’re only just now getting, presumably inspired by Donald Trump’s border wall rhetoric revival tour. Just in the past week I’ve seen Liam Neeson’s The Marksman, in which he protects a young border crosser from imminent deportation, listened to American Coyote, Imperative’s podcast about a Mormon people smuggler, and heard a segment on This American Life about a border agent who finds out his own papers are fake. 2019 gave us the MAGA version, in Stallone’s ghoulish, gory Rambo: Last Blood, and this week, from IFC, comes No Man’s Land, a VOD rental that attempts to do for the borderlands what Crash did for race relations in LA.
No Man’s Land, from director Conor Allyn, stars his younger brother, Jake Allyn (who also co-wrote the script) as Jackson Greer, a handsome baseball prospect weighing his options between an offer to play AA ball with the Yankees or to stay on and work the family farm with his handsome parents (Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell) and older brother (Alex MacNicoll). I have to admit, every time I see Frank Grillo, part of me silently wishes he was Jon Bernthal. Anyway, that Jackson practices by throwing baseballs at an old metal sign while wearing a pearl snap cowboy shirt should give you an idea of the kind of old-fashioned cinematic drama they’re attempting here.
The farm is situated, naturally, in “no man’s land,” the strip of sunbaked land in Texas between the actual border and the border checkpoints and wall. Jackson’s dad and his obnoxiously perfect hair think Jackson is crazy to even consider staying on their snake-bitten dirt farm instead of playing baseball, but Jackson seems to feel a never-quite-explained sense of duty towards this land. This despite their frequent trouble with migrants, often led by cartel-connected coyotes, who are always fleeing across their ranch land, stampeding the cattle who scatter to the winds and cost the family $2,000 a head in potential earnings.
The Greers’ counterparts are a Mexican family led by patriarch Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez), a “good” coyote who has a green card himself but is shepherding across his wife and son to reunite with him after they’ve been denied visa requests. Gustavo’s family assumes every white person they meet along the trail to the border is a potentially murderous “minuteman,” while the Greers assume every Mexican crossing the border is a potentially murderous cartel soldier. Assumption meets assumption one night in a deadly event straight out of Crash, and Jackson is forced to flee south on horseback. He’s being pursued by a non-Spanish speaking, Mexican-American Texas Ranger played enjoyably by comedian George Lopez. The anachronistic Old West nature of this conflict is not accidental, with one Mexican responding to Lopez announcing himself as a Texas Ranger with, “They still have those?” in one of the film’s best lines.
In any case, Jackson is off on his familiar journey to see how the other half lives, stowing away in conveniently-timed horse trailers and working for his keep at a Mexican horse ranch. It’s a straightforward concept, and the Allyns attempt valiantly to play up the old-fashioned romance of it all (Connor Allyn also directed a rodeo movie for Netflix). Mostly, though, it comes off sorta clunky. Partly their lead just looks corny, with Jake Allyn not quite pulling off the transition from well-built hair model to fully-formed leading man. But also his character is written so naively as to defy belief. I can pretend for the sake of argument to accept a cornfed farmboy-turned-baseball prospect story like we’ve Quantum Leaped into a nineties Scott Bakula vehicle (written by Nicholas Sparks), but are we really to believe that a guy who grew up walking distance from the Mexican border hasn’t learned the word “culo” by age 19 and pronounces Guanajuato “gana jotto?” As someone with a Spanglified upbringing myself this was a non-starter.
An even poorer choice is No Man’s Land‘s antagonist, a tweeky, tattooed weasel with a mohawk and head tattoos who I guess works for the cartels (?) played by Andrés Delgado. No Man’s Land never quite gets around to telling us what this guy’s whole deal is but we’re left to mostly infer that he must be bad because he talks like a Bond villain and dresses like a Mexican cyberpunk Chuck Liddell. Moreover, when the entire movie is structured as an empathy-building exercise in not generalizing based on people’s appearance, it’s not great when the bad guy looks an anthropomorphized Scar from The Lion King.
All of which to say, No Man’s Land aims for timeless and classic, and has a few nice moments and performances here and there (it’s a bummer to focus on the hair models when you’ve got George Lopez and Andie MacDowell in your movie), but it’s undone by a persistent corny reductiveness, and ends up coming off blandly derivative. I suppose the best we can hope for is that movies about the fraught border conflict become an anachronism.