‘To Rob a Thief’: Film Review

Courtesy of Vaca Films
Spanish corruption, glamorized.

The first Spanish blockbuster of 2016, Daniel Calparsoro’s well-dressed, high-energy heist thriller blends action with a timely critique of contemporary political corruption.

Spanish director Daniel Calparsoro has devoted himself in recent years to banging out loud and proud action thrillers, sometimes with a political angle (Invasor) and sometimes merely vacuous (Combustion). So it’s too the good that To Rob a Thief, a slickly made and played piece of work, is rooted in the contemporary Spanish reality of high-level political corruption, because that gives this highly polished product at least the veneer of depth and urgency.

Making all this moral filth look and feel so damn attractive and audience-friendly is questionable, but then that’s what thrillers do, and Calparsoro, in his generic, undistinctive way, does it well. But this is still intelligent, well-played, twistily scripted (by Alex de la Iglesia regular Jorge Guerricaechevarria) and well-shot fare — think a slightly less sharply dressed Inside Man.

Partly produced by the same team as Daniel Monzon’s international 2009 hit Cell 211, the film bears comparison with the earlier thriller in that it’s about the shenanigans of a gang of ne’er-do-wells locked up together in an alien place, fronted by an angry Luis Tosar. Thief is not as good as Cell 211, but that hasn’t prevented it from bringing Spaniards into the cinemas in droves, briefly knocking Deadpool off the box-office top spot. Sales throughout Spanish-speaking territories beyond the producing territories is likely for a thriller with a style and elegance that transcends its Spanish focus.

It’s raining heavily, and extremely cinematographically, in Valencia in eastern Spain on the day that hard-nosed bank director Sandra (Patricia Vico, delivering the film’s weakest performance in a cast which contains some very fine actors, though not always giving it their best) gets the call that she’s ‘on the list,' i.e. that she’s about to be fired. (The city, incidentally, has become something of a byword for corruption.)

In what will turn out to be a lucky break for Sandra, it’s the same morning that the gang led by El Uruguayo (Rodrigo de la Serna), a brash, seasoned heistmeister who’s satisfyingly always one step ahead of the game, and Gallego (Luis Tosar) decide to rob the bank. They wear costly looking masks which look cool but which don’t perhaps hide their features as well as they think they do (at least it’s easy for the audience to figure out who’s speaking).

The captives are down on the floor, the building is circled. But the gang didn’t count on the rain, and as they try to make their underground tunnel escape, they find that the water is rising quickly. Sandra, knowing she’s out of a job anyway, cuts a deal with Gallego. So far, so standard thrills, but then the neat distinction between criminals and victims breaks down and the film’s Spanish marketing tagline “Who’s robbing who?” comes into play. A safe box in the bank, belonging to a politician and containing sensitive material, is trapped in there with them, and it becomes a matter of urgency to the government’s press officer, Ferran (the normally fine Raul Arevalo, here looking out of place) to get it out, unopened. (It’s surprising that the filmmakers missed the trick, in a nod to Cell 211, of titling it Box 314.) This is just the first of the twists in Thief, which pile up at an almost bewildering speed. It’s a tricky plotline, but it does basically stand up to post-viewing scrutiny.

Thief has all the apparatus you’d associate with a heist thriller: tunnels, ticking bombs and panels which slide over holes in the floor. But it also has more, and Guerricaechevarria’s script neatly folds in a sharp criticism of institutionalized corruption.

Given the antipathy that Spaniards currently hold towards both banks and the political class (which to a degree are the same thing), it’s not hard to sympathize with the thieves, who at least are not gray, serious-faced men like their antagonists. Rodrigo de la Serna seems to be having a high old time as the irrepressible, motor-mouthed Uruguayan, witty Argentinean epithets dropping from his lips and in stark dramatic contrast to the intense, buttoned-down Tosar.

Only Loco (Joaquin Furriel) — you wonder whose idea it was to invite such a loose cannon onto the team in the first place, and he does commit one error which might have been drawn from a straight comedy — can match their distinctiveness: it’s the Argentinians who take the acting plaudits in this largely Spanish film. Poor Jose Coronado (who starred in Box 507, a less accomplished but not dissimilar Spanish thriller) and Marian Alvarez, normally guarantees, appear to have been handed half-roles and told to do the best they can.

The pic's title derives from the Spanish proverb, "To rob a thief that steals from another thief brings 100 years of forgiveness." It’s perfect for the film’s frankly unpleasant vision of a society in which absolutely everyone seems to be out to get their hands on whatever they can.

Production companies: Vaca Films, Morena Films, Telecinco Cinema, Invasor Producciones
Cast: Luis Tosar, Raul Arevalo, Rodrigo de la Serna, Joaquin Furriel, Luciano Caceres, Patricia Vico, Marian Alvarez
Director: Daniel Calparsoro
Screenwriter: Jorge Guerricaechevarria
Producers: Juan Gordon, Emma Lustres, Borja Pena, Ghislain Barrois, Alvaro Agustín
Executive producers: Pilar Benito, Javier Ugarte, Axel Kuschevatzky, Gabriel Arias-Salgado
Director of photography: Josu Inchaustegui
Production designer: Juan Pedro de Gaspar
Costume designer: Patricia Monne
Editor: Antonio Frutos
Composer: Julio de la Rosa
Casting director: Rosa Estevez
Sales: Film Factory

Not rated, 99 minutes