A stylish, superbly played and well-written piece about luckless criminals in Tarantino/Coen Bros. mold, "Washington Wolves" is let down only by some sloppy plotting and a couple of characters too many. But pic's visual power and energy are enough for it to ride smoothly over these quibbles --- among recent Spanish pics, only "Between the Legs" has managed to create a noir mood so efficiently. Mariano Barroso's third feature (after "My Soul Brother" and "Ecstasy") is a Spanish thriller worthy of mention in the same breath as its influences, and with the right marketing push could take a bite out of the offshore arthouse market.

A stylish, superbly played and well-written piece about luckless criminals in Tarantino/Coen Bros. mold, “Washington Wolves” is let down only by some sloppy plotting and a couple of characters too many. But pic’s visual power and energy are enough for it to ride smoothly over these quibbles — among recent Spanish pics, only “Between the Legs” has managed to create a noir mood so efficiently. Mariano Barroso’s third feature (after “My Soul Brother” and “Ecstasy”) is a Spanish thriller worthy of mention in the same breath as its influences, and with the right marketing push could take a bite out of the offshore arthouse market.

Smooth-talking Miguel (Eduardo Fernandez) and alcoholic slob Alberto (Javier Bardem) are losers aiming to swindle their mercenary ex-boss, car dealer Claudio (Jose Sancho), out of 20 million pesetas he wants laundered. Alberto lives in smelly-socks poverty with the simple-minded Pablo (Ernesto Alterio), whom he has been helping out after finding him lost in the subway. Miguel is getting it on with Alberto’s ex-wife, Sara (Maria Pujalte), who is in hospital and whom Alberto still loves. Claudio is married to ex-prostitute Elena (Vicenta Ndongo), knowing she is having an affair with Antonio (Antonio San Juan).

Claudio hands the cash over to Miguel and Alberto, but Miguel dumps Alberto in a tunnel, aiming to leave the country with Sara and her child. Alberto calls Claudio to tell him that Miguel has fled, and goes to see Sara in hospital; when he gets there, he finds the incensed Claudio has already kidnapped her.

Scripted by journalist Juan Cavestany with an eye for telling realist detail, pic sidesteps easy sensationalism and is most powerful and coherent in the relationships among its characters and in its moral. The complex structure mostly hangs together well, despite a couple of coincidences and ambiguities, but stretches itself too far with the inclusion of a subplot involving Elena and Antonio, neither of whom takes on real life.

Atmospherically, pic is spot on, creating out of Madrid’s dreary suburbs a rain-slicked, claustrophobic noir environment that approaches the dreamlike. Perfs are superb across the board, giving the genre material real depth, and tech credits are tops, though Bingen Mendizabal’s score is sometimes laid on too heavily.

Washington Wolves

(THRILLER -- SPANISH)

Production

An Alta Films release (in Spain) of an Aurum Producciones/Sogetel production, in association with Pinguin Films, with collaboration of Canal Plus and participation of Antena 3. (International sales: Aurum, Madrid.) Produced by Francisco Ramos. Executive producers, Javier Bardem, Mariano Barroso. Directed by Mariano Barroso. Screenplay, Juan Cavestany. Camera (color), Nestor Calvo; editor, Ivan Aledo; music, Bingen Mendizabal; art director, Pilar Revuelta; sound (Dolby), Jorge Ruiz. Reviewed at Cine Princesa, Madrid, Aug. 31, 1999. (In Toronto Film Festival --- New Spanish Cinema.) Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Alberto ..... Javier Bardem Miguel ..... Eduardo Fernandez Claudio ..... Jose Sancho Pablo ..... Ernesto Alterio Antonio ..... Antonio San Juan Sara ..... Maria Pujalte Elena ..... Vicenta Ndongo
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