By Kerry Lengel | Gannett News Service
In 2010, millions of people around the world watched as 33 Chilean miners were pulled to safety from 700 meters beneath the Earth in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
It was the feel-good climax to a harrowing story that played out on TV screens and Internet streams. For 17 days after a massive rock collapsed deep in the 121-year-old copper and gold mine, rescuers sent exploratory drills into the mountain. Finally, one broke through near the emergency shelter where “Los Treinta y Tres” had somehow survived on three days’ worth of canned tuna, milk and cookies.
Over the following weeks, as an international team worked to drill an escape route, the miners became media stars, especially their charismatic spokesman, Mario Sepúlveda,dubbed Super Mario by the media. When he was finally pulled to the surface after 69 days underground, he pumped his fist and led the waiting crowd in a triumphant cheer.
So really, you’ve already seen “The 33.” Performed in English, Hollywood’s slick but workmanlike retelling stars Antonio Banderasas Sepúlveda in a cast that also features Juliette Binoche,Gabriel Byrneand Lou Diamond Phillips.
Helmed by Mexican director Patricia Riggen(“Girl in Progress”),the film is based on journalist Héctor Tobar’sbook “Deep Down Dark,”which recounts the miners’ ordeal as well as the experiences of their families as they waited in a makeshift camp through weeks of crushing uncertainty.
Critics have praised Tobar’s narrativefor its attention to gritty detail, but little of that has survived the process of condensing the story into a two-hour movie.
Unavoidably, Riggen and the screenwriting team focus on just a handful of characters, but they still seem cardboard-thin onscreen. Sepúlveda’s heroics are played up, but even though Banderas endows the character with his matinee-idol looks and rock-hard abs, he somehow lacks the exuberant humor that the real Super Mario showed as he spoke to the world on video.
Binoche has a fine turn as María Segovia, who demands government action to save her estranged, alcoholic brother. Phillips makes the most of limited screen time as the guilt-ridden shift leader, Don Lucho, who abdicates leadership.
On the other hand, Byrne merely serves to push the plot along as the engineer in charge of the rescue effort. And one wishes the casting director had found someone with a more convincing Spanish accent to play the Chilean president than Bob Gunton(the sadistic warden from “The Shawshank Redemption”).
Massaging the facts to pump up the drama is a necessary evil in a film like this, but “The 33’s” cinematic beats are so familiar that they undercut the sense of realism that would make it more compelling. A few broad strokes of dialogue establish the mining manager as a villain (“Your quota has gone up!”), and when the oldest of the miners turns out to be two weeks from retirement, you almost expect him to shout, “I’m too old for this s—” a la Danny Glover in “Lethal Weapon.”
The hokiest dialogue is reserved for Banderas, who says things like, “That’s not a rock, that’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.” And, “They’ll dig us out. And if they don’t, our families will. With their bare hands if necessary.”
Scenes of the mine collapse are heart-pounding in a Disaster Movie 101 kind of way, while the miners’ struggle to survive on starvation rations induces empathy without really giving a sense of just how horrible it must have been to endure those first 17 days.
There is one notable exception: an elegiac “last supper” scene in which the miners seem to hallucinate beloved family members bringing their favorite foods to the table, while in reality they are sipping a thin gruel containing a mere bite of tuna. It’s the least realistic moment in the entire film, and the most convincing.
Warner Bros.presents a film directed by Patricia Riggenand written byMikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas, based in part onthe book “Deep Down Dark” by Hector Tobar. Running time: 128minutes. Rated PG-13(for a disaster sequence and some language). Opens Friday at local theaters.