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Brotherly love is stretched to breaking point and beyond in Kike Maillo’s Toro, a thriller whose very title promises a mix of excitement, violence and general Spanishness. Cleverly both grungy and slick, Maillo’s follow-up to the very different Eva, which did international business and won the filmmaker a best director Goya award, indeed thunders along nicely. But despite a central trio of fine performances and satisfyingly breakneck pace, its insistence on pushing all the right cinematic buttons means that below the surface, it doesn’t quite stand up.
This will matter little to its target audience, who will be more than happy to submit themselves to the pic’s frenetic rhythms, blood, and raw emotions. Perhaps they also will forgive the implausibilities which start to become apparent once, post-closing credits, all the dust has settled. Toro should put up a good fight in Spain-friendly territories and, given that in the right hands this product is as potentially as marketable as Spanish wine, perhaps beyond them as well.
Toro (Mario Casas) is on day release from jail following a well-crafted pre-title robbery sequence in which his older brother is killed. Five years on, he’s settled down with schoolteacher Estrella (Ingrid Garcia Jonsson, underwritten) and working as a cab driver when another brother, referred to by his surname Lopez (Luis Tosar) even by Toro, turns up seeking help. Local businessman/Catholic fundamentalist/criminal psychopath Romero (veteran Jose Sacristan), with a habit on inflicting religion-inspired revenge on his enemies and who’s been a father figure to Toro, is chasing Lopez for robbery and has kidnapped Lopez’s daughter Diana (Claudia Canal Merino). Rather than simply telling his brother to go flagellate himself, Toro stares into space for a few moments, decides in a very Spanish way that even bad blood is stronger than common sense and so makes the worst decision of his life.
Petty criminal Lopez truly is the brother from hell, and can be counted on to do the wrong thing. After rescuing Diana from the clutches of Romero and his gang, the trio set off in his orange cab to the coast, where a series of twists and turns will take place, each of them excitingly staged as stand-alones, most of them based on implausibilities. Amongst them are why Toro would jeopardize his hard-won freedom for a brother who has already shown his unworthiness; why one particular character needs to die, other than to show red blood strikingly running down a blue swimming pool slide; why Romero hires bodyguards who are so bad at fighting; and how it’s possible to distribute lottery tickets so quickly across an entire region.
Rafael Cobos is responsible for scripting two of the finest thrillers ever to come out of Andalucia — Unit 7 and Marshland, both directed by Alberto Rodriguez and which made international ripples. But Toro can’t quite pull off the fusion of genre thrills and the real sense of place which made the other pics stand out, with the background on this occasion heightened into something approaching caricature in its depiction of an Andalucia which seems to consist of religion, flamenco, violence and corruption, but on this occasion, too little nuance.
All that said, as an unrealistic thriller, Toro is great entertainment. Maillo does have a way with telling a story through images (dialogues are brief and to the point throughout) and punchy set-pieces abound. The car chases and crashes, of which there are more than one, are suitably frenetic and nicely edited, while the violence is suitably twisted: The lengthy final sequence makes wonderful use of the vulgarly modernistic architecture which predominates in the tourist-based towns on Spain’s southern coast.
And there are a few lovely little touches: the way ice cubes are edited into the teardrops of the Virgin Mary (on account of Romero’s religious obsession, Toro goes very big indeed on the region’s Catholic iconography, both visually and musically), or the way that snot drips from the nostrils of the sad and angry hero, just as it does from the snouts of fighting bulls.
Within the confines of a story which is never going to allow anyone to stretch their wings, the actors do fine work. Sacristan is compelling as Romero, an aging man of wealth who seems weary of instructing his hoods to smash axes down onto people’s hands, but he carries on anyway, out of habit. Romero also is responsible for a few lines in which the film seeks to say something about Spain, which he describes as “a country of bad brothers” — an insight which, after the Civil War and still today, rings true.
Tosar, as reliable a guarantor of quality for Spanish cinema as, say, Ricardo Darin is for Argentinian film, is grungy and despicable, and looks it. His own redeeming quality in his love for his daughter, though it must be said as well that if he’s a terrible brother, he’s perhaps an even worse father — in the real world, the social services would have been called in long before.
Casas has his work cut out to play the lead against two such strong supports, but delivers probably his best performance to date as the emotional center of the film. It is clever casting to build his remarkable physique (which is, for once, never revealed, and which is increasingly bloodied through the film, like a bull’s) into the title, and thus into the character himself, and it seems to free up an actor who, too, has often seemed to be trying to hide his physique as he plays.
Production companies: Apaches Entertainment, Atresmedia Cine, Escandalo Films, Zircozine
Cast: Mario Casas, Luis Tosar, Jose Sacristan, Ingrid Garcia Jonsson,,Claudia Canal Merino
Director: Kike Maillo
Screenwriters: Fernando Navarro, Rafael Cobos
Producers: Belen Atienza, Sergi Casamitjana. Mercedes Gamero, Axel Kuschevatsky, Mikel Lejarza, Enrique Lopez Lavigne, Antonio P. Perez, Eric Tavitian
Executive producers: , Farruco Castroman, Pepe Torrescusa, Gabriel Arias-Salgado
Director of photography: Arnau Valls Colomer, Marino Scandurra, Julio Vergne
Production designer: Pepe Dominguez
Costume designer: Oscar De La Visitacion
Editor: Elena Ruiz
Composer: Joel Iriarte
Casting directors: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano
Sales: Film Factory
Not rated, 105 minutes
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