columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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Let's be clear about one thing from the start: many of director Baltasar Kormákur's signature talents are on display in Inhale. These would include his skill at interweaving elements of family drama with those of other genres, his gift for hinting subtly at a character's dark side, and, most of all, his unerring sense of place. In fact, maybe that's why once upon a time he might have seemed like a great fit for this project. The problem, though, is that few of these positives will be noticed by those who aren't already familiar with, or even fans of, Kormákur's previous work and aren't in fact actively looking for them. In short, most of his efforts in Inhale are simply squashed flat by a dismayingly tepid thriller-cum-message-movie script that wouldn't even cut it as a TV movie-of-the-week.


Although Inhale is notable for being Kormákur's first U.S. production, he has worked with Hollywood actors before. To pick a film that's probably not in his top tier, 2005's A Little Trip to Heaven featured Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner and a script by Kormákur that, even if it didn't always hit its emotional marks, was obviously acquainted with the notion of providing the audience with the pleasures of cinema. There were interesting characters, some intriguing narrative complexity, and a growing sense of urgency as the story progressed. Inhale, by contrast, has no such instincts regarding its audience. Like another mixed effort from a couple of years ago, Trade, Inhale tries to combine a shocking, this-deserves-more-attention topic with a scummy, street-level view of a shadowy region of U.S.-Mexico economic relations. I suppose a blueprint for such films might be Traffic, but it might also be the exception that proves the rule, making it look like it's easy to combine a docudrama sensibility with a genre flick's knack for engaging viewers.  

Here the topic is the illegal trade in internal organs, a fact that some opening text-on-screen clues us into. Not a great sign, beginning with statistics. Usually those are reserved for the end (where, yes, Inhale provides additional stats), after a film has aroused the audience's indignation or compassion. I gave Inhale the benefit of the doubt, though, thinking, "Hey, maybe it's getting this stuff out of the way so that we won't be lectured to once the action starts." No such luck. Not only are we lectured to repeatedly, but it's also done in a very ham-fisted manner. Rosanna Arquette, as a kind-hearted doctor, gives us quick primer on the global situation, and gosh, no, I didn't know that organs are routinely harvested from death row prisoners in China, or that in Iran you can legally sell your own kidney. When the action moves to Mexico, with desperate father Dermot Mulroney trying to track down some second-hand lungs for his daughter, the doctors and officials continue in this vein, seizing upon every opportunity to educate him... and, of course, us. Yet meanwhile his actual relationship with the daughter, and even the character herself, is depicted in the sketchiest of ways. He calls her "pumpkin" once or twice, that's about it. In one scene he and wife Diane Kruger rush to her aid while nude, so primal is their concern. Perhaps the filmmakers thought it was efficient to use this kind of shorthand for the emotional content, but the end result is that, as drama, Inhale has the depth of onion skin. 

We wouldn't mind not caring so much about the daughter's plight if events surrounding her Dad were consistently gripping. But Mulroney's character is never really in jeopardy; even though he gets beaten up, entrapped, threatened, and so on, it's all a big yawn. Mexico is presented as that archetypally dangerous place of Other-ness, barely civilized and paying for the monied sins of its northern neighbor. As such, its replete with nearly every cliché one can imagine. Randomly sadistic anti-gringo thugs in vacant lots? Check. A dark-eyed and duplicitous "femme" seductress who may or may not have a heart of gold? Check. Malevolent "Los Olvidados"-type urchins hanging out on every corner? Check. One of those malevolent "Los Olvidados"-type urchins becoming the plucky, streetwise, Third World sidekick for our white, privileged point-of-view character? Double check!  

Worse yet, there are several transparent attempts to goose the thrills. There's a sudden firefight that comes across as a distracting sidebar to the main plot. There are also some gory close-ups in a surgery scene. And in the end we're meant to be captivated as Mulroney must make the inevitable big moral decision. That's not to say that these issues aren't worth putting in the public spotlight, but by the end of Inhale you'll wish you had just watched a segment of a TV news magazine. Indeed, even the average Public Service Announcement has more excitement, authenticity, and originality.

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