By Matt Sabljak   Published Jun 16, 2006 at 5:11 AM
If anyone -- writer, director, actor -- can be said to be an auteur as long as they leave a distinctive signature on all their films, then writer/director Jared Hess has emerged as Hollywood’s newest auteur with “Nacho Libre,” only his second film in wide release. In Hess’ case, that’s not all good, and it’s not all bad.

“Nacho Libre” features the moment’s “It” comedy actor Jack Black as Nacho, a portly priest who, in order to save the children of his orphanage, dons a mask and tights and becomes a luchador -- a professional wrestler in Mexico that traditionally never reveals his true identity in public. Nacho recruits a scrappy, loincloth-clad thief from the village as his partner, and together the mismatched tag team will be beaten to a pulp in every conceivable way that’s possible in a ring, eventually making it to the big arena to challenge Ramses, a luchador god.

Hess sticks to his “Napoleon Dynamite,” buddy-movie roots, pairing Jack Black’s painfully awkward white guy with a laugh-at-him-not-with-him Mexican to create a handful of hilarious scenes, especially as the two are pummeled in the ring by all brands of seasoned competitors -- most memorably hissing, snarling midgets made-up like ferocious little half-humans, half-lions. As in “Napoleon Dynamite,” there’s a love interest in “Nacho Libre,” the beautiful Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera), though in this movie’s case it really could have worked without her.

What’s most disappointing about “Nacho Libre” is how constrained Black’s performance is, and it has a lot to do with the demands of his character -- even though these demands are limited to a “Mexican” accent (the humor of which wears out in 30 seconds) and a relatively timid demeanor compared to those of recent characters he’s portrayed. It seems as if Black has been over-directed; only a few scenes allow him to employ his musical flamboyance and obnoxious gestures to great effect. For the most part, the Jack Black of “School of Rock” and Tenacious D is not present in “Nacho Libre,” and the film suffers because of it.

Hess is proving a master of creating simple movies with funny, likeable characters, and his instinct for keeping this one short (100 minutes) is appreciated. Still, “Nacho Libre” plays out like a "Saturday Night Live" that lasts too long, but an upbeat score and Jack Black’s undeniable charm make this an entertaining ride nonetheless.

“Nacho Libre,” rated PG for rough action and crude humor, opens nationwide Friday, June 16.