With quality production values and a starry Spanish-Latin American cast, “The Law of the Frontier” is a bighearted, fast-paced ’20s adventure story of multiple pursuits and disguises, deploying all the usual ingredients. Home and Latin American success are virtually built in. But unless distribs can be persuaded that pic reps a new spin on the frontier Western, it’ll be a little too familiar for the mainstream audience helmer Adolfo Aristarain clearly hopes to woo.
El Argentino (Federico Luppi), a comic-book bandit, is being pursued by the Civil Guard over and around the border territory between Portugal and Galicia, in northern Spain. Meanwhile, adventure-seeking bourgeois bad boy Xan (Pere Ponce), on the run from a Franciscan monastery, meets artless country hunk Joao (Achero Manas), AWOL from the army.
Poverty forces the pair to reconstruct themselves as a comically incompetent Butch and Sundance, posing as members of El Argentino’s gang, stealing horses and waylaying a tax collector. They link up with Barbara Miller (voluptuous Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, from “A Walk in the Clouds”), a slightly improbable New York Times photographer preparing a feature on El Argentino.
Eventually — and inevitably — the trio are captured by El Argentino himself , but thanks to the bandit’s heart of gold and his comic vanity, their lives are spared. Rest of the pic has fun with the gang’s efforts to avoid the attentions of the Civil Guard, plus some romantic shenanigans centered on Barbara, who’s fancied by Joao but who really loves El Argentino.
The anything-goes storyline depends heavily on an implausible disguise convention in which Barbara poses as a man, and pic’s beginning and ending could easily be sheared to tighten running time.
Aristarain’s previous pic, 1991’s “A Place in the World,” was a dense, slow-moving arthouse piece that nonetheless did fair B.O. At times, “Law” looks like an arthouse director’s idea of a safe, mainstream item. There’s no hint of genre subversion, resulting in a good-natured, unfashionably wholesome feel.
Still, the many running gags are well modulated, much of the dialogue (though hard to translate) is hilarious, Portifirio Enriquez’s camerawork is stunning, and period detail is up to scratch. On the acting side, pic’s main delights are zestful, nuanced playing by Ponce, a young actor fast becoming Spain’s brightest young comic, and veteran Luppi, over whose craggy features Aristarain rightly lets the camera linger.