Jim Caviezel in Sound of Freedom


A five- or six-year delay in a movie's release doesn't generally imply cinematic quality, and certainly doesn't suggest that the work in question will be any sort of box-office hit. (Critics may have swooned at Kenneth Lonergan's completed-in-2005/screened-in-2011 Margaret, but sadly, no one bought tickets.) Yet you'd be hard-pressed to argue that the five-year dormancy period between its 2018 filming and its debut wasn't perhaps the best thing to happen to writer/director Alejandro Monteverde's Sound of Freedom, a dramatic thriller about child trafficking that made in excess of $40 million (off a $14.5 million budget) during its first week in theaters. “The movie that Hollywood didn't want you to see!”, after all, is an awfully enticing marketing ploy. It might also have been an obnoxious one if Monteverde's film weren't so unexpectedly good.

Here's the heavily synopsized account of how Sound of Freedom's summer-of-'23 premiere came to be. Monteverde completed filming in 2018 and made a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. The studio, however, was then bought by the Walt Disney Company, which promptly shelved the movie. (I've done zero research on the potential “why”s behind this decision, but if you hunt online, I'm betting you'll find a theory or two.) The filmmakers consequently spent years attempting to procure the rights back from Disney, and after succeeding, brought the film to the independent Angel Studios, which, in turn, acquired worldwide distribution rights. Lacking sufficient funds to properly advertise the release, Angel initiated a crowdfunding campaign that raised some five million for marketing, and also garnered advance endorsements by significant figures in conservative media. As all of this likely suggests, with added arguments regarding reliability and censorship tossed in for good measure, the long-delayed arrival of a film that seemingly had no future was hardly met with disinterest. Google-search “Sound of Freedom” and “controversy” and you'll be reading for hours – and that's just in the reading of headlines.

But I am more than happy to leave questions of “based on a true story” veracity and QAnon adjacency and liberal bullying to others, because it turns out that Sound of Freedom is absolutely worth a look regardless of historical accuracy and personal politics. Viewing the movie as a movie, Monteverde and his creative team have taken inarguably horrific subject matter and transformed it, with surprisingly minimal arm-twisting, into a frequently gripping, moving feature that only loses its footing when it dives too deeply into Hollywood-action-flick formula during the final act. While the film is hardly entertaining in the traditional sense – and I wouldn't want to see any child-trafficking drama that someone assured me was “fun” – it's a deft, engrossing take on difficult material, and due to a magical supporting performance by character-actor legend Bill Camp, you might find yourself smiling almost as often as you wince.

Bill Camp in Sound of Freedom

Co-written by Rod Barr, and inspired by the real-life exploits of former government agent Tim Ballard, Monteverde's movie opens with a spectacular bait-and-switch that invites us to wonder whether child-predator hunter Ballard is a secret pedophile. Because he's played by the film's star Jim Caviezel, we know he probably isn't, and we're proven right – Ballard is just exceptionally adept at convincing actual pedophiles that he might be one himself. This specific gift winds up being incredibly useful when Ballard takes it upon himself to rescue a missing 11-year-old (Cristal Aparicio's Rocio) who was taken from Honduras and forced into sex work, her seven-year-old brother (Lucás Ávila's Miguel), stolen alongside his sister, having recently been saved by Ballard. In order to have any chance of locating Rocio, Ballard must leave the U.S. and insinuate himself among child traffickers, disguising himself as a louche, drunken multi-millionaire who wants to open a high-end “hotel” whose residents are all minors. The odds are astronomical, but Ballard hopes that one of his repellent new contacts will recruit Rocio into service.

Up to this point, Sound of Freedom has been a grim, if effective, drama on the apparent hopelessness behind the child-trafficking enterprise. Although Ballard states that he has helped capture 280 predators during his tenure with Homeland Security, he has to admit that all of those arrests led to the finding of zero abused children; he's been battling the symptoms but not the disease. So when Ballard promises little Miguel that he'll try to rescue the boy's sister, you understand the mission as more than the familiar screenwriting conceit of “cop making a solemn vengeful oath” – the man's obsession with locating Rocio is about saving her and his soul. Whether you consider Jim Caviezel to be Christ-like, a loon, or, as some of us do, a solid, intensely earnest actor occasionally capable of greatness, his character and material here play beautifully into his performance strengths, and the U.S. section of Monteverde's film (along with the subtly nightmarish Honduran scenes that precede it) are suitably sincere, affecting, and harrowing. But surely the movie will fall utterly apart when it ventures into spy-thriller terrain, yes?

Amazingly, no, and for this we largely have Bill Camp to thank. Portraying the absurdly named Vampiro, a reformed accountant for a Colombian drug cartel now dedicated to protecting children from sex trafficking, Camp enters the scene with a loud Hawaiian-print shirt, a stubby stogie that will almost never leave his mouth, and, of all things, a joke, telling the visibly out-of-place Ballard that he needs to stop dressing like a Banana Republic ad. Here were are at a movie about imperiled children and there are laughs in it. Yet Camp, whose magnificently debauched, lived-in portrayal is one you can practically smell, isn't just around to lighten the load. Vampiro proves vastly knowledgeable about finding the unfindable and securing their trust, and with his arrival, Sound of Freedom smoothly morphs into a beat-the-clock thriller with the highest of stakes.

Cristal Aparicio in Sound of Freedom

Blessedly, though, the plight of victimized children is neither sidelined nor – an even greater relief – employed as a mere plot device. In a powerfully delivered monologue, Camp explains Vampiro's change of moral compass expressly in terms of eradicating child endangerment, and although the film routinely flashes back (in PG-13 manner) to the horrors suffered by Rocio and others, these scenes don't feel exploitative; you don't sense Monteverde wallowing in their ugliness for even well-intentioned shock value. While there's considerable excitement in the ruse that will hopefully lead to Rocio's (and others') release, the situation itself, and the young performers who give it meaning, are handled with dignity.

Unfortunately, after this arresting segment of the movie runs its course and leads to what feels like a fitting (if downbeat) conclusion, it turns out there's another half-hour of movie to go, and it proved a little too Rambo-esque for comfort. I also found it odd that, in a pre-end-credits tag, we learn that Ballard credits his wife Katherine for initiating the rescue mission – a strange reveal given that Mira Sorvino, who plays Ballard's spouse, is in only three early scenes with maybe four lines of dialogue in total. Yet despite that nitpick and some torturous overacting from those enlisted to play sweaty, slavering, giggling predators, Sound of Freedom is an impassioned, admirably taut exploration into unquestionably important subject matter whose depiction in films, barring Hollywood outliers such as Gone Baby Gone, has been nearly invisible. You may not “enjoy” Sound of Freedom. That shouldn't prevent you from seeing it.

Sabrina Wu, Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, and Stephanie Hsu in Joy Ride


Beyond offering sorely-needed representation to an under-served demographic, you have to credit the slapstick comedy Joy Ride for not merely threatening to Go There, but actually Going There.

Unlike the recent No Hard Feelings, the previews for which suggested unending raunchiness only to bathe in sentimental sweetness so chaste that it verged on primness (Jennifer Lawrence's full-frontal beach assault notwithstanding), director Adele Lim's and screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong's and Teresa Hsiao's showcase for Asian female talent promises nastiness and delivers. Bags of coke are inserted into unmentionable body parts. An acrobatic three-way leads to a pair of concussions. Another sex act involves the pummeling vibrations of a basketball. Characters are vomited on. Legs are broken. A grade-schooler is punched in the face and kicked in the back. And an impromptu K-pop performance leads to one of our heroines losing her skirt, which probably wouldn't have been so devastating for her if she weren't famous … and was wearing underwear … and didn't have an enormous dragon head tattooed on her privates … and the routine wasn't being live-streamed.

So bully to Joy Ride for promotional honesty. I just wish the movie were funnier. (This isn't necessarily a case of previews highlighting the only laugh-out-loud moments a movie has to offer, but it's close.) Childhood besties who grew up the only Asian kids in their profoundly white neighborhood, the now-adult Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) travel to Beijing for lawyer Audrey's career-making interview, with Lolo acting as interpreter for her friend who doesn't speak Mandarin. (In a nifty jab, Audrey unwittingly proves her lack of cultural fluency by being able to name all the characters on Succession.) Joining them on their trek is Audrey's former college roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu), now an ostensibly celibate actress on a popular Chinese soap, and Lolo's cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), a socially awkward eccentric whose K-pop fixation results in Kat's humiliation. Needless to say, travel plans go awry, public embarrassments escalate, friendships are seemingly severed, and it all ends, Sex & the City style, in cocktails and hugs. Does Hollywood, en masse, think we as a people are criminally deprived of hugs? Must every gross-out comedy nowadays climax with them?

There are so many reasons to root for Lim's film, up to and including the break-from-the-norm employment of every young man on-screen as a fetish object, that it's a little heartbreaking to discover that the movie itself is just … fine. The lewd jokes, all of them hit-or-miss, are ample, yet rarely well-staged – and certainly not ingeniously staged – by the novice director. Our four leads are across-the-board charming, but as they're really only granted one running gag apiece, they tend to run out of comic invention quickly. (The enjoyably sardonic Cola, a performer previously unknown to me, proves most adept at giving her lines unanticipated spins.) And despite brief appearances by the likes of Annie Mumolo, David Denman, and Daniel Dae Kim, the movie feels weirdly underpopulated; while our quartet of travelers bounce off each other frequently, it's all-too-are for others to show up and add variety to their testy rapport. Maybe that's why, much like No Hard Feelings, Lim's outing actually has more significant success with its sentiment than it ever does with its loud, brassy slapstick. Audrey's subplot involving her unknown birth mother, for instance, leads to a wildly unexpected plot reveal and deeply affecting work from Park. I'm hardly advocating that Joy Ride needed to be a trenchant drama, or even a genre hybrid in the style of Lulu Wang's The Farewell. But if Lim and company, for a followup, took the route of Lou Grant – a dramatic spin-off from the sitcom of The Mary Tyler Moore Show – I sure wouldn't complain.

Ty Simpkins in Insidious: The Red Door


Because horror is one of few genres that post-pandemic moviegoers appear to still care about, the fifth franchise entry Insidious: The Red Door topped Indiana Jones & the Dial of Destiny to become the weekend's box-office champ, and I honestly can't recollect the last time I had so little to say about a release that opened north of $30 million domestic.

Seriously: I remember going to the film, and remember staying 'til the end, and even recall a moderately spooky bit in which Patrick Wilson's Josh Lambert is having a CT scan when the lights suddenly go out and a supernatural entity crawls up toward his face. (Which remains my number-one fear about enduring a CT scan.) I retain a few other flickering memories, too: of the first appearance of Rose Byrne, sadly absent from the series, like Wilson, since 2013's Insidious: Chapter Two; of the monster puking into a frat-house toilet; of the indispensable Lin Shaye, as the level-headed medium Elise Rainier, somehow continuing her streak of Insidious portrayals four entries after her character's demise. The rest, however, is mostly a blur. As directed by Wilson in his first feature-length attempt, the family-trauma-themed The Red Door is so lacking in scares, memorable imagery, and shivery sound effects – with even the reprise of Tiny Tim's “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” less “Oooo … this again!” than “Ugh … this again?” – that the movie appears to be vanishing even while you're watching it. The marketing wizards at Blumhouse may have fashioned another horror hit for themselves, but nothing about this latest, doubtless not-last Insidious is nearly as frightening as its piece of casting that was likely meant as comedic, with the ravishingly imperious Hiam Abbass playing Ty Simpkins' intimidatingly haughty art professor. I saw Abbass on Succession. Joy Ride's Audrey would know who she was. That's one college course you definitely do not skip.

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