Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Daniel Monzón's EL NIÑO tackles drug trafficking in Gibraltar -- major & minor from various angles

Writer/director Daniel Monzón (shown below) is the man who, back in 2009 gave us one of the best prison movies ever made, Cell 211, a film alert to every-thing from prison life (and death) to Spanish politics, economics and sociology. If his newest endeavor, EL NIÑO, does not come up to that level, it should be no surprise. The film is plenty good in its own right and should please genre aficionados who appreciate complex thrillers offering an extra dose of humanity and depth of characterization.

That depth is particularly evident in the title character, called El Niño (the child) due to his childlike glee behind the wheel of both car and boat. Though he drives like a kid at an amusement park, he does it with speed and assurance. As played by Jesús Castro, making his movie debut, Niño is shown from the first to be carefree -- why not?!-- but also a tad more thoughtful than some of his peers. This thoughtfulness grows into a kind of maturity as the movie plays out, making Niño a character we come to care and root for, if only slowly. And Señor Castro (shown below) appears to possess the kind of talent, sex appeal and charisma that just might make him a star.

Since his debut here, in fact, the actor has made another film and had a continuing role in a TV series. (Something similar happened to the star of Cell 211, Alberto Ammann, after his performance under the direction of Señor Monzón.)

Another plus for Monzón's movie is its exotic location: the island of Gibraltar, complete with scenic beauty and even its own special wild monkeys. A British Overseas Territory located between Spain and Morocco at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar, with its economy fueled by gambling, tourism and the shipping industry, would seems a fine place for all kinds of drug smuggling. And so, according to this movie, it is.

Said to be based on real events, El Niño begins as the police (above) trail a dockyard worker, a fellow they're quite sure is part of a smuggling ring. Then we switch to the young folk, Niño and his pal, Compi (Jesús Carroza, below, left) who are looking for some way out of the crap Spanish economy and into a little wealth for a change.

Back and forth we go between police and youth until the stories of the two are completely entwined, and we're somehow rooting for both parties. This is one of Monzón's strengths -- showing us the whole picture that enables us to understand and care about opposing sides. "Can't they be rich without being crooks?" one character asks another, who answers, "I don't know. But I don't think so." Yeah, right. This movie is as much about the lives and needs of the underlings, as it is about the smuggling operation.

We also get to see and meet the upper echelons of crime and law enforcement, as portrayed by Moussa Maaskri and Ian McShane (representing the former) and Sergi López (three photos up, at left, representing the latter). The guy and gal who do the police grunt work are played by the always terrific Luis Tosar (he of the mammoth eyebrows, above) and Bárbara Lennie (below).

The only other important woman in the cast is Niño's girlfriend, played by the beautiful Mariam Bachir., who plays the sister of boy's third partner, Halil (newcomer Saed Chatiby, below, center). This is definitely a movie about the boys, but as such it is mostly very well done. Also in the cast in that fine Spanish actor Eduard Fernández as another member of the police force on the case.

As confined and confining as was Cell 211El Niño is spacious and expanding. This presents a bit of a problem, however, as the film comes in at 136 minutes -- a little long, perhaps, and yet those minutes are never boring. Expect car and boat chases (below, pursued at sea by helicopter!), suspense, betrayals (on both sides of the fence) and more. As in Cell 211, the accumulation of detail that comprises events and characters makes for a nourishing movie meal that offers a resounding, if believably depressing, dessert.

El Niño -- from Distrib Films US -- opens this Friday, April 17, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, and then has its digital platform debut on Tuesday, May 5, via iTunes, Vudu  and Google Play.  

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