As hyperactive, ostentatious and hollow as the characters it describes, Miguel Bardem’s effective but inelegant grifters pic “Taken In” plays a fine hand over its first hour, but then blows it. Though its over-the-top script is compensated by entertainment value, good looks and fine perfs, pic struggles to bring anything fresh to a genre that already has its fair share of classics, with Mamet comparisons definitively not working in its favor. Offshore interest from selected Euro and Spanish speaking territories is a possibility, with fest play likely. First weekend B.O. at home was respectable.
Early frames provide a faux-psychological intro by showing the troubled childhood life of Ernesto (Ernesto Alterio), whose years at a religious school teach him the survival value of lying. On the streets, Ernesto hitches up with vet swindler Manco (Manuel Alexandre), who takes the kid under his wing and introduces him to elegant master swindler Federico (Luppi). Together, the team carries off Ernesto’s first big-time swindle, managing to siphon off a quantity of Spain’s military budget.
Another layer of complexity is added with the arrival of Pilar (Abril), an old lover of Federico’s who once betrayed him, and is his Achilles’ heel. She persuades Federico to participate in a big scam that will set the gang up financially for the rest of their lives, involving a trio of businessmen stooges encouraged to invest undeclared money in property.
The aging Manco cannot be trusted to keep his mouth shut when he’s drunk and so mysteriously dies, while Ernesto’s schooldays partner in crime, Gipsy (Alejandro Casaseca) is released from prison and returns to pester his now-successful old buddy for money. From this point on, nobody — priests, businessmen, politicians — is who they seem, Federico crucially starts to lose his cool, and the plot spirals off into increasingly complex and often implausible areas, mislaying its grip on reality in the name of effect.
Perfs are outstanding, particularly from Abril, giving it everything she’s got as the sweet-faced, slippery femme fatale, the kind of role she was born to. Luppi, who converts his avuncular air into a dangerous instrument, and Alterio as the sharp-faced Ernesto, behind whose impassive features a coolly calculating brain never stops ticking over, are also memorable.
But though the plot generates gratifying quantities of suspense and zips along at giddying speed, human interest is sacrificed for increasing intricacy. The surrogate father relationship between Ernesto and Manco does little to mitigate the problem. Unforgivably with this kind of fare, over the final reels the script pulls the same false-blood trick twice over, and credibility questions are raised.
High-energy lensing is appropriately showy, but freeze-frame is overused, as is Ernesto’s voiceover, much of which becomes redundant. Juan Bardem’s score is listenable, but veers dangerously close to Martini ad territory. One neat touch of humor is a TV still of Mario Conde, the Spanish banker later convinced of massive fraud, neatly suggesting the real fraudsters are the ones running the country.