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By Merle Bertrand | March 5, 2005

Looking back on it, Cheech and Chong weren’t really all that funny. Oh sure, maybe if you were smokin’ what they were, it was probably a riot. But otherwise, forget about it. Now, take Cheech and make him even more of an exaggerated caricature — thicker Latino accent, gaudy jewelry, slicked back hair, silver tooth, etc. — and you’d be starting to zero in on Julio “The Pepper” Chavez, the lead character in co-directors Justin Meeks’ and Duane Graves’ short satire-of-questionable-taste, “Rio Peligroso: A Day in the Life of a Legendary Coyote.”

Not to sound like a humorless slave to the political correctness police or anything, but it’s just damned hard to find much that’s ripe for comedy in a character who smuggles human beings across the Mexican-American border for a living. When real-life coyotes are dumping illegal immigrants into the desert with nothing but the clothes on their backs or, worse yet, abandoning them, locked inside train cars or tractor trailers to face sweltering, agonizing deaths, it hardly makes them fodder for comic relief.

Yet, though Meeks and Graves furiously till this infertile ground like migrant farmers at planting season, the squirm-inducing crop they produce leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, Meeks gleefully apes it up as Julio, an ego-filled hombre with a penchant for tall tales, personal hygiene, and the occasional seniorita. The subject of geeky filmmaker Patrick Husker’s (Patrick McHugh) documentary, the flashy coyote — “He’s like Moses. Only Mexican!” — sets out to bring four listless immigrants to the American Promised Land, only to quickly run afoul of two lame-o Border Patrol agents.

Not that the plot really matters here, as “Rio Peligroso” is more of a character study than anything…which is why it’s so painful to watch. In spite of some truly stunning visuals, courtesy of Graves who doubles as the film’s DP, this film is annoying at best, if not downright offensive. Though it’s no doubt intended as a goofy, outrageous satire…well, hell. I’m a corn-fed gringo from Illinois, and I was squirming on the couch, so one can only imagine how Hispanics might feel.

Who knows? Maybe Latinos have a better sense of humor than I give them credit for. Maybe this sends-up some obscure Univision program that I don’t know about. In any event, Meeks and Graves should have known better. Although some of their earlier films are commendable, “Rio Peligroso: The Life of a Legendary Coyote” is one film that should be fed to the dogs.

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