‘El Nino’: Film Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
A rangy, slick and well-played actioner with a social conscience

Daniel Monzon’s drug-trafficking-thriller follow-up to the hit "Cell 211" has returned 2014's biggest opening weekend figures for a Spanish film

The makers of El Nino have carefully studied what goes into making a good thriller, and with this expansive, action-filled and socially aware take on a teenager’s involvement in international drug smuggling, they’ve made it. A compact, nicely twisting script, classy performances and quality visuals are the hallmarks of a film which, though short on psychological nuance, over-long and lacking in the directorial distinctiveness that might have made it really special, still delivers in all the key departments. A major, months-long marketing campaign in Spain has generated healthy first-weekend figures, with sales likely to see El Nino smuggled beyond Spanish-speaking territories.

If his widely praised prison drama Cell 11 showed that director Daniel Monzon could deliver on a small scale, El Nino, with its multiple locations, sizeable cast, multiple plot strands, boats and copters, shows that bigger is not always worse. Excitingly, this is the closest a Spanish film has yet come to replicating the high-grade adrenaline of Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass, its multiple action scenes, shot live by Carles Gusi without digital assistance, carrying a raw, breathtaking immediacy and danger.

The film is set between Morocco, southern Spain and the British enclave of Gibraltar, a major Euro-African conduit for the drugs trade. Jesus (Luis Tosar, the very bad guy in Cell 211, an altogether better guy here) is a driven cop who has spent years failing to deliver to his bosses a major drugs haul. The first 10 minutes are a tour de force of pacing, editing and photography, as Jesus and sidekick Eva (Barbara Lennie) pursue the bad guys. They end up with nothing but 3,000 kilos of frozen hake, no trace of cocaine and a significant increase in the viewer’s heart rate.

El Nino himself (‘the Kid’, Jesus Castro, debuting here in the best possible show reel, though not yet up to speed as an actor) and his buddy El Compi (‘the Buddy,’ played by Jesus Carroza, still best-known for his debut, Seven Virgins) work the fishing boats and dream of a better life. El Nino’s skill at piloting his jet ski at breakneck speed across the Strait of Gibraltar gets the boys a job as runners for Rachid (Moussa Maaskri). Their debut crossing, in a film unafraid of displaying its influences, is a nail-biting maritime homage to the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest, with the newly demoted Jesus now at the controls of a helicopter.

Unbeknownst to the kids, the crossing is a decoy mission, and El Nino decides to set up business independently, trafficking hashish rather than coke. Meanwhile a mysterious, malevolent stereotype in a white suit, known only as ‘El Ingles’ (‘The Englishman’), played by an Ian McShane whose voice goes unheard and whose face goes pretty much unphotographed, floats in and out of the action as Jesus’s ultimate target. The two strands pull satisfyingly together for a thrilling finale.

A nice contrast is set up between two parallel versions of manhood. The first is wearied, hard-bitten and insecure, and consists of the the gold-plated acting triumvirate of Tosar, Sergi Lopez (Pan’s Labyrinth) as Vicente, and Eduard Fernandez as Sergio. All duly deliver. The second is the younger trio, foolhardy, fearless and street smart, and here the acting is wobblier, with first-timers presumably chosen for their authenticity and feelings of uncertainty.

There’s the feeling that Monzon has undertaken the impossible task of keeping all viewers happy. The key culprits in this regard are a few interminable scenes of impossible romance between El Nino and Moroccan Amina (Meriem Bachir) come dangerously close to stalling the forward momentum. There’s a well-observed truthfulness about the macho dialogue of the three cops aboard their helicopter that the teen beach movie conversations can’t match, with the clumsiest moment from a tech perspective coming in a yucky fade to black on a kiss in the surf.

Womanhood is not well-rendered in this man’s world. Lennie as Eva does fine work as Jesus’ sidekick (and thankfully there is never the remotest suggestion that there might be any romance between them), but she does feel shoehorned in as a politically correct example of a successful professional woman: Dramatically, her absence wouldn’t have altered very much at all. As in Cell 211El Nino is better on relationships between men than it is on the relationships between men and women.

Monzon, presumably with Mann in mind, keeps a careful eye on the social angle, rendering with precision both the sun-baked locations of southern Spain and northern Africa and the flavor of the lives lived there: A warm heart thus beats beneath all the action. Aside from the critique of political corruption, El Nino is an exploration of how money dictates lives, whether those of impoverished Moroccans dreaming of a new life in Europe or middle-aged males wishing to put their kids through the right school. Everyone, the cannily named Jesus apart, has a price and can be bought off: Even Gibraltar’s famous wild monkeys get their few moments of screen time, as a nicely positioned symbol of man’s inhumanity to man.

Production companies: Telecinco Cinema, Ikiru Films, Vaca Films, La Ferme! Productions
Cast: Luis Tosar, Jesus Castro, Eduard Fernandez, Sergi Lopez, Barbara Lennie, Ian McShane, Luis Motilla, Jesus Carroza, Moussa Maaskri, Meriem Bachir
Director: Daniel Monzon
Screenwriters: Monzon, Jorge Guerricaechevarria
Producers: Alvaro Augustin, Ghislain Barrois, Edmon Roch, Javier Ugarte, Borja Pena
Director of photography: Carles Gusi
Production designer: Anton Laguna
Costume designer: Tatiana Hernández
Editor: Mapa Pastor
Composer: Roque Banos
No rating, 130 minutes