Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch), Mexico's entry in this year's Foreign-language Film Oscar contest, follows three different sets of characters who are momentarily connected by a car crash in downtown Mexico City. Director Alejandro González I˜árritu, a veteran of TV movies in Mexico, makes a splashy feature debut, but the script runs out of both steam and originality long before the finish.

The first story--a lurid melodrama with drugs, hold-ups, dogfights and adultery--packs the most punch. Octavio (Gael Garc"a Bernal) lives in the slums with his brother Ramiro (Marco Perz), a supermarket clerk by day and petty crook by night. Octavio pines after Ramiro's wife Susana (Vanessa Bauche), an apparently naive schoolgirl who's pregnant with her second child. When Ramiro's dog Cofi accidentally kills a local bully's mastiff, Octavio stumbles across a means to get out of the ghetto, perhaps with Susana.

Octavio enters Cofi in a string of illegal dogfights, amassing enough money to hire goons to beat up Ramiro. He then starts an affair with Susana, and makes plans to leave town with her. But he also enrages his dogfighting rival Jarocho (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), leading to a bloody confrontation and a desperate car chase. Director I˜árritu stages both the dogfights and the chase expertly, using handheld cameras and jittery editing to pump up the tension. But the action wouldn't be as effective without first rate acting by Bauche and especially Bernal, who makes his character's compulsions both believable and sympathetic.

I˜árritu's narrative techniques aren't nearly as effective in the second story, a turgid suspense piece about an actress (Goya Toledo) immobilized by a broken leg, her missing dog, and the rats who lurk under her living room floor. Filmed like a telenovela, the story manages to be creepy, slow and improbable at the same time.

The third piece, a long, sentimental look at a hit man anxious to reconcile with his estranged daughter, fails to recover the film's initial excitement. El Chivo (Emilio Echevarr"a) abandoned his family to become a terrorist, only to be jailed for 20 years after bombing a shopping mall. On his release, he's blackmailed into contract killings by Leonardo (Jos Sefami), a corrupt cop. When street urchins interrupt his attempt on Luis (Jorge Salinas), a businessman, El Chivo has a change of heart. Instead, he finds an ingenious alternative to killing Luis. Echevarr"a brings a worn dignity to El Chivo's role, but his story is marred by maudlin writing. The most interesting bits turn out to be glimpses of the characters in the other stories, like Leonardo spotting Ramiro as he tries to rob a bank.

With its long running time, complicated structure and often lurid subject matter, Amores Perros will draw inevitable comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. But apart from the first story, the film just doesn't live up to its promise.

--Daniel Eagan