Review: A Styleless There Are No Saints Never Gets Beyond Crime Drama Tropes

The hook of There Are No Saints, the new film from director Alfonso Pineda Ulloa, is that he’s working from what is apparently an old screenplay by the great Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, The Card Counter). While there are hints of themes concerning spirituality and the guilt associated with the past sins of a former hitman named The Jesuit (Jose Maria Yazpik, Narcos), the best parts of Schrader’s written work have been replaced with third-rate action and a cliche-driven plot.

The Jesuit (real name Neto Niente) gets out of prison after four years when his case is overturned. He’s met by his shifty lawyer (Tim Roth), who informs him that the sooner he gets out of town the better, especially since he wants out of the criminal lifestyle that he’s devoted his entire adult life to. He goes to meet his ex-wife Nadia (Paz Vega) and their young son, but it doesn’t take long for a rival crime boss named Vincent (Neal McDonough) to kill Nadia and kidnap the son in order to keep the Jesuit in line. In his search for Vincent, the Jesuit befriends Inez (Shannyn Sossamon), a strip club bartender who takes pity on his cause and travels down to Mexico, where he’s been told his son is being held by the true head of the rival syndicate, Sans (Ron Perlman, who apparently entered the production late in the game, replacing Brian Cox, who had already shot most of his scenes).

There Are No Saints is a needlessly complicated exercise that goes through a standard-issue crime plot where motivations aren’t as important as seeing who can out-badass each other in the end. There is a lot of shooting and stabbing, a few explosions, and zero interesting details about any of the characters, with perhaps the exception of Sossamon’s Inez, who at least has a human-like personality. Everyone else is either screaming all the time or saying as little as humanly possible (Yazpik takes that approach to toughness). The end result is a stock action movie, checking off a series of tropes we’ve all seen before and that add nothing to the proceedings aside from an escalating body count.

There Are No Saints offers a few hints of a better movie that never arrives, dangling moments that offer the promise of depth that don’t pay off, to the point where the whole film feels like an exercise in frustration. The Jesuit goes to a church soon after he’s released from prison, checking in with his local priest to make sure confession still works for men like him. It’s an interesting question for someone for whom murder is a part of their job description. But then the filmmaker (or the screenwriter or both) never revisit the dilemma once things start going south. The idea of a murderer with a conscience is at least intriguing, but the film leaves that theme dangling like wet spaghetti. This film took years to get completed, so who knows where the fault lies. But no aspect of it really works well, from the uninvested acting and unfulfilled writing to the styleless visuals. Paul Schrader doesn’t have a perfect record as a screenwriter, but he’s been on such a roll lately, it’s tough to see him stumble like this. Hopefully his upcoming Master Gardener will erase the memory of this empty work.

The film is now in theaters and on VOD.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.