Combining the commercial and the idiosyncratic to sometimes sizzling effect, writer-director Daniel Monzon's daft but enjoyable debut, "The Heart of the Warrior," is an often witty, always fun, parallel-worlds fable that's visually stunning and well played. Despite a massive 224-print release and a marketing drive that began way back in the last millennium, pic's first-weekend B.O. was less than blistering, reflecting Spanish auds' suspicion of atypical home product. But the project's uniqueness may well provoke offshore interest.

Combining the commercial and the idiosyncratic to sometimes sizzling effect, writer-director Daniel Monzon’s daft but enjoyable debut, “The Heart of the Warrior,” is an often witty, always fun, parallel-worlds fable that’s visually stunning and well played. Despite a massive 224-print release and a marketing drive that began way back in the last millennium, pic’s first-weekend B.O. was less than blistering, reflecting Spanish auds’ suspicion of atypical home product. But the project’s uniqueness may well provoke offshore interest.

With a reported tab of $ 3.2 million, high for a debut by local standards, the movie features the busiest digital f/x seen to date in Spanish cinema. Only drawback is that the product of helmer’s comic-strip imagination could have benefited from some tightening.

To call the plot delirious would be an understatement. Opening scenes have muscled Beldar (Joel Joan) and luscious-lipped Sonja (Neus Asensi) in an underground labyrinth, fighting monsters and interpreting dead languages as they pursue a precious gem, the Heart of the Warrior. Its theft, from a crypt full of living heads, puts Beldar under a curse.

Just as Beldar is about to die, Ramon (Fernando Ramallo), a spotty teenager, wakes up in bed in modern-day Madrid. Beldar and Sonja, it seems, are characters in an ongoing role-play game in which Ramon is involved with a bunch of friends that includes sex-obsessed Javi (Jaime Barnatan) and Victor (Juan Diaz). Rest of pic shuttles back and forth between the reality of Ramon’s life and his fantasies. For example, Felipe (Javier Aller), a one-eyed dwarf he sees busking on the subway, becomes the guardian of the castle of Netheril (Santiago Segura), whose real-life version is a cut-rate TV psychic.

In order to escape the curse, Beldar will have to kill a witch who lives in a castle protected by two fire-breathing lions. Back in fantasy land, Sonja is attacked by the lions, and Ramon then wakes up outside Madrid’s government buildings, which have two statues of lions outside. As in Alex de la Iglesias’ groundbreaking “Day of the Beast,” pic is full of witty comparisons between the geography of present-day Madrid, some of whose stranger locations it celebrates, and the geography of Ramon’s fantasy-land.

When Ramon goes inside the buildings and throws a sword at Adolfo del Prado (Adria Collado), a leading politician in the Young Democrats party, Ramon becomes the object of a nationwide witch hunt. Matters start to spin out of control as fantasy and reality lock together, and Ramon, who is in love with the fictitious Sonja, tries looking after her in the real world, where she’s Sonia, a hooker.

Ramallo, 19, who appears in nearly every scene, runs efficiently through an extensive range of emotions; Asensi is good as Sonja/Sonia; and the vertically challenged Aller, from last year’s “P. Tinto’s Miracle,” is electrifyingly energetic as the dwarf, as though he’s jumped right out of a cartoon. Other roles are less demanding: Segura, touted as one of Spain’s best comic talents, seems unsure how to play either of his roles.

Several scenes are darkly surreal a la Terry Gilliam, as when Felipe, who lives in a hole on the side of a subway track, catches and toasts a rat, which he and Ramon eat. But pic’s shuttle structure is sometimes frustrating: Just when the fantasy action is getting hot, the movie switches back to reality, and just when that is getting interesting, pic switches back to fantasy. Satirical swipes at image politics and trash TV largely have a cliched, tacked-on feel.

Pacing is as rapid-fire as it should be. Tech credits (apart from the CGI lions) are up to scratch, with lenser Carles Gusi getting all the right dark Gothic tones. Score is standard dungeons ‘n’ dragons fare.

The Heart of the Warrior

Spain

Production

An Altafilms release of a Tornasol/Cartel production, in association with Via Digital, TVE. (International sales: Altafilms, Madrid.) Produced by Gerardo Herrero, Jesus Lopez Blanco, Eduardo Campoy. Directed, written by Daniel Monzon.

Crew

Camera (color), Carles Gusi; editor, Ivan Aledo; music, Roque Banos; art directors, Jose Luis Arrizabalaga, Biaffra; sound (Dolby Digital), Jorge Ruiz, Polo Aledo. Reviewed at Cine Princesa, Madrid, Jan. 25, 2000. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Ramon ..... Fernando Ramallo Sonia/Sonja ..... Neus Asensi Beldar ..... Joel Joan Netheril ..... Santiago Segura Felipe ..... Javier Aller Adolfo del Prado ..... Adria Collado Javi ..... Jaime Barnatan Victor ..... Juan Diaz

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