Sunday, August 18, 2013

Baby Sellers (Halmi/Reunion/Lifetime, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Baby Sellers, billed as a “world premiere” Lifetime showing of a quite powerful and well-done thriller from producer Robert Halmi, Sr. (he and Halmi, Jr. are known for socially conscious TV-movies) which had some of the usual Lifetime sillinesses and improbabilities, but had enough energy and power to transcend them. The star is a young, compactly built blonde woman named Jennifer Finnigan, who plays Detective Nicole (“Nic”) Morrison of the (presumably fictitious) “Homeland Security Investigations” law-enforcement agency, or HSI. When the film starts she and her male African-American partner (alas, not identified on the cast list on are hot on the trail of Rafael Ochoa (Zak Santiago), a crime kingpin involved in a number of illegal enterprises, including smuggling undocumented immigrants into the U.S. in the backs of large trucks. The film actually opens in a small village in India, where kidnappers literally steal Mira, the recently born baby of a young couple, Dilip (Arjun Gupta) and Noureen (Veena Soud), who can recognize her if they see her again because she has a tear-shaped birthmark under her left eye. Then it cuts to the U.S., where Nic and her partner almost catch Ochoa’s agent but the agent and Ochoa himself escape. They do, however, recover the truck in which they were smuggling in their latest batch of undocumented immigrants — pregnant women. Ochoa is shipping them into the U.S. so they’ll give birth on this side of la linea and therefore the kids will be U.S. citizens; then the babies will be taken away from their mothers and placed with wealthy Anglo families for adoption. At the crux of all this is an adoption agency with the typically smarmy title “Road to Love” run by Carla Huxley (Kirstie Alley) — and I can’t help but think writer Suzette Couture deliberately named her after an author whose most famous work is Brave New World, a novel about the mass production of babies. Huxley delivers a well-honed sales talk to prospective adoptive parents in which she trots out her own Third World-born adopted daughter Alyssa (Corale Knowles) and tells what a wonderful success her own adoption has been — “My mom is awesome!” Alyssa tells her mom’s prospective customers, before we get a scene between the two of them in which Carla turns out to be a tough taskmaster with an obsessive concern about her daughter’s diet. Directed by Nick Willing, Baby Sellers flits confusingly between the U.S., India and Brazil (another important stop on Carla’s baby-selling network), and at times you have to look closely to determine which Third World country with dirt roads, shaky buildings, grinding poverty and nut-brown people is which (some of the switches in location are indicated by chyron titles but most aren’t), but it’s generally well plotted and it’s powered by fascinating female characters as both heroine and villainess.

It’s also a movie which, despite the sometimes confusing changes in locale, manages to tell convincingly tragic plot lines and avoid the soap-opera trap of too much blatant tear-jerking. Nic’s round-the-world search for Carla and her connections is counterpointed with Dilip’s desperate search to find his baby and get her back — he even hitches a ride with the low-level thugs who kidnapped her and Nic tries to follow them but loses them in the heavy-duty Mumbai traffic — only to get himself killed when four of the baddies ambush him in a warehouse just as he’s recovered his daughter and is about to take her home. There’s also another story, of a young Brazilian girl named Dolorita (Nicole Muñoz) who gives birth in a hospital whose principal pediatrician, Dr. David Azevedo (Alessandro Juliani) is in league with Carla’s gang. Since the baby’s father, who abandoned Dolorita after he knocked her up, is blond and blue-eyed, Carla has earmarked her child for a demanding white couple who want their adoptive baby to be white, and so Dr. Azevedo has his nurse tell Dolorita her child died shortly after birth even though he’s really shipped the baby off to Carla’s operatives. When Dolorita starts making trouble and leaves a report with the U.S. consulate, a corrupt Brazilian cop and his associate in the gang kidnap her, drive her out to a deserted area, kill her and bury her body — and though Nic gets to Brazil too late to see Dolorita, she’s tipped off by the existence of the consulate report and the testimony of Dolorita’s boss (she’s a barista at a Brazilian coffeehouse) to the effect that she’s never been late for work before and now she hasn’t shown up at all. Nic got to do this round-the-world tour only because her Black partner was blown up in a house Ochoa had booby-trapped early on, but she’s forced to rely on local police for backup and seemingly all the local police she’s told to contact are corrupt and being paid off by Carla’s gang. Eventually she’s ambushed by the same corrupt cop who killed Dolorita, but she shows off some impressive martial-arts skills, subdues the guy and gets his gun, and later she does the same to Rafael Ochoa himself in a meeting between them and Carla she’s set up to try to entrap Ochoa into confessing — only Carla grabs Ochoa’s gun after Nic disarms him, shoots Ochoa, claims self-defense and gets off, though at least she’s out of the baby business.

Afterwards there’s a title about the impact of human trafficking, including the claim that it’s now the world’s second largest and most lucrative criminal enterprise (after drugs but before weapons), which reminds us that the Halmis were also the producers of the Lifetime movie Human Trafficking, which was a pretty bad production which, when I reviewed it for, I headlined my review with the phrase, “Good intentions doth not a great movie make.” I wouldn’t call Baby Sellers a great movie, either, but it’s far better than Human Trafficking; it’s not only a fast-paced, exciting thriller (we open in the middle of a chase scene instead of getting the usual 20 to 40 minutes’ worth of dull exposition typical of Lifetime’s thrillers) but it has two great tour de force roles for women. Kirstie Alley is absolutely brilliant, capturing not only the character’s evil but the smarmy self-righteousness and gooey sentimentality with which she conceals the evil not only from the people she interacts with but from herself; as I wrote about her the last time I saw her play a villainess in a Lifetime movie, as the murdering mother Brenda Geck in Family Sins, I wrote that she played the killer mom (who got her sons to be accomplices in her crimes) “neither as raving psycho nor coolly collected psycho but as a woman constantly on the defensive, able so totally to compartmentalize her mind (what George Orwell called ‘doublethink’) that she can not only declare herself the world’s greatest mother and get other people to believe her but believe it herself as well.” She shows the same skill here — and she’s matched by Jennifer Finnigan, who manages to be just as tough as Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit without being either as self-consciously butch or as annoyingly schoolmarmish. Finnigan’s combination of little-slip-of-a-girl appearance, implacable will and surprising toughness and skill with the action scenes is remarkable, eminently watchable and makes me wish the Halmis and Lifetime would get together and build a series around this remarkable actress and her character here.