SANTIAGO – Before the Academy Awards this Sunday, Chile Today takes a look at a notable Chilean movie that was in the running for the foreign film Oscar. The film is 1993’s Johnny 100 Pesos, a crime thriller with a hidden political message. It is a window on life in the early days of the return to democracy.
Based on the first ever hostage taking robbery in Chile, Johnny 100 Pesos tells the story of Juan García, alias Johnny, a 17-year-old thief who teams up with a gang of older and more hardened criminals to rob a video rental store that doubles as a front for a money-laundering scheme. The movie came out in 1993 but is set in 1990, only seven months after the return to democracy, giving the newly-appointed government their first real challenge.
Directed by Gustavo Graef Marino, Johnny 100 Pesos quickly became one of Chilean cinema’s earliest hits, spawning a sequel that premiered in 2017 and launching the careers of it’s star Armando Araiza and Luis Gnecco, with the latter becoming a staple of modern Chilean cinema and a familiar in such series as Prófugos.
The movie’s title comes from the nickname of the main character, Johnny, and from an urban legend that says that criminals would swallow a hundred-peso coin before being detained in order to be able to buy things inside prison.
A robbery gone wrong.
The movie is only about 90 minutes and takes place over a single day. It starts in the morning with our young protagonist sitting in an almost empty bus towards the center of Santiago. He’s wearing his school uniform and has a backpack, which he opens, discreetly taking out a gun which he clumsily handles, causing it to fire a shot and causing the driver to stop the bus. Afraid that he’s going to be caught Johnny tries to get out but the bus driver locks him in and takes out a crowbar, leading to a showdown between them until an old lady opens the doors allowing Johnny to run away. This opener tells us all that we need to know about the titular Johnny. He’s an amateur and in way over his head.
What follows is a string of incidents that cause the robbery to go wrong. When they enter the building of the video rental store, the landlady immediately becomes suspicious and alerts the guard. When the group of robbers enters the store, there’s an old man talking to the workers. Once they take out their guns and try to break into the back room, Johnny accidentally drops his backpack from the window, and, due to their inability to get the money, one of the robbers gets scared and runs away, leaving only four men to take care of the five people—now hostages—they find in the store.
Things get more complicated when a news reporter finds Johnny’s backpack and starts a media frenzy over him, using the information inside the backpack to interview his mom and classmates, alerting everyone to his involvement in the robbery. Once the police arrive the robbers decide to hunker down in the store with the hostages until they can figure a way out. Tensions build and the robbers start to turn on each other, especially when Johnny starts developing feelings for the female hostage.
Throughout the movie there is a subplot that takes place only a couple of blocks from the robbery, in the presidential palace, la Moneda, involving the cabinet of the ministry of interior at the time and how they’re trying to resolve the issue peacefully so that they can demonstrate to the Chilean public how the government works in a democracy. At the end, both of these stories manage to converge in a very satisfying ending that gives us closure on the characters and on the story itself.
An unexpected political commentary
The movie also offers some political commentary, as it shows inexperienced politicians who have just returned from exile to a country they hardly knew. We see how they attempt to do everything in their power to make sure that the conflict is resolved bloodlessly in order to show the Chilean public how things are supposed to work, and how to enforce the law without resorting to violence.
This subplot reinforces why this movie can only take place during this time period and why its impact would have been diminished had it come out in this day and age, which would explain why it’s sequel failed to live up to its predecessor.
A Chilean B-Movie
The movie has a B-movie feel, mostly because of its grainy quality and rough sound design, it feels like an old Hong Kong action movie. Ironically, when today’s movies attempt to replicate this look they often fall flat, but Johnny 100 Pesos is the “real deal” in this regard, and the story fits the action-genre that it’s attempting to emulate. For example, the voices from the movie sound as if they were recorded separately from the video, but not so much that it’s distracting.
They also manage to splice in fake news footage that manages to look authentic, which is something that most national movies fail to do, even to this day.
The most interesting shots in the movie, however, are the ones outside. They show us a different world that was Chile in the early 90s—the yellow buses that crowded the streets instead of the Transantiago, and the small shops that nested in the first floors of buildings, instead of the international shops that are situated today in the same spots.
Another interesting aspect is the muted realism of the wounds and blood effects. Often with these kinds of movies, directors swing between the poles: either going overboard into a pool of blood or completely ignoring it. Thankfully Gustavo Graef Marino, keeps it just right and manages to make it convincing but without falling upon gore as a crutch.
Johnny 100 Pesos premiered on October 14, 1993, and became Chile’s highest-grossing movie for about six years.
In 1994, the film was taken on an international tour, appearing in the Toronto Film Festival, the Stockholm Film Festival, and at the New York New Directors and New Films Festival. That year it was even nominated at the Goya Awards as best foreign film in Spanish. It was also in the running for the foreign film Academy Award nomination, but ultimately didn’t make the cut.
One person who didn’t enjoy the movie however was the original Johnny, the kid who participated in the robbery in 1990 and whose story was used for the movie without his permission.
The beginning of the Chilean film industry
Johnny 100 Pesos was not Chile’s first film, but it did mark an important point in the modern film industry. It showed that Chile could make movies of interest to a global audience. Up until that point, Chile’s most known films had been more underground affairs, but weren’t necessarily about Chile, like Jodorowsky. In contrast, Johnny 100 Pesos is the movie that helped the Chilean film industry reach the outside world.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.