A rookie prison guard finds himself trapped on the wrong side of the bars in "Cell 211."

A rookie prison guard finds himself trapped on the wrong side of the bars in “Cell 211,” a satisfyingly intense and suitably incendiary prison drama that keeps the viewer tightly handcuffed during its first hour before falling victim to the fraud of improbability. But by that time, the pic has earned its parole by virtue of a compelling central perf from Luis Tosar, a script that focuses exclusively on the suspense, and sharp direction that suggests hitherto uneven helmer Daniel Monzon may finally have found his niche. Commercial prospects at home are solid, and positive buzz could aid an offshore breakout.

Enthusiastic Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) turns up for his new prison job a day early. As he’s being given an intro to how the place works (the solidly researched pic keeps things rooted in reality), a chunk of ceiling falls onto Juan, and he is rushed, unconscious, to cell 211. He awakens to find a rebellion in progress, led by Malamadre (Luis Tosar), whose name translates as “Bad Mother.”

Powerfully lensed riot scenes give way to high-tension sequences in which Juan tries to persuade Malamadre and his cohorts, Tachuela (Vicente Romero) and unhinged Releches (Luis Zahera, whose primal utterances are used to disturbing effect) that he’s a new inmate, having decided that this is his only chance of survival.

Malamadre, who takes Juan under his wing, has discovered that Basque terrorists are being held in the same prison, and plans to use them as a bargaining tool — a tricky reference to Spanish political affairs that could leave non-Spanish auds perplexed (essentially, the terrorists’ presence transforms the riot into a national rather than local issue). In due course, special police and the media are brought in to complicate things.

Juan’s pregnant wife, Elena (Marta Etura), slowly learns about his impossible situation and heads for the jail. Much of the pic’s second half disengages from the politics and focuses on the emotional fallout, triggering developments involving embittered prison guard Utrilla (Antonio Resines). It all adds up to one plotline too far, and the script has problems tying up loose ends.

The cast is superb, with the inmates effectively repping a contempo gallery of grotesques. (No place here for the politically correct view that these guys are society’s victims: They’re just plain nasty and all the more fun for it.) Intelligently and credibly, Ammann doesn’t play Juan as a hero, just a sharp guy using his wits to fight for survival.

Tosar again proves himself as one of Spain’s finest character actors: Using his gravelly voice as a threatening complement to the compact, hairy chunk of badness that is Malamadre, he makes an entirely convincing, charismatic leader while successfully showing a more tender side in his protection of Juan.

Atmospherics are always on edge inside the prison; an abandoned jail was cleaned up for the shoot, and lenser Carles Gusi makes full use of it, creating a compellingly chaotic feel in which the aggression, even when not onscreen, can be felt seething below the surface.

Occasional moments of grim detail — including the in-your-face opening scene — supply an indispensable sense of realism, but things are probably somewhat grimmer, and duller, in resource-starved high-security Spanish jails than the pic is prepared to admit.

“Cell 21″ is less controlled in scenes outside the prison, sometimes resorting to uncharacteristically cheesy slo-mo to get its dramatic points across. Likewise, the use of happy-family flashbacks is at odds with the pic’s generally taut feel. Nods to “Reservoir Dogs” and “Seven,” among other pics, show the helmer unabashedly drawing on his fave motifs.

Cell 211

Spain-France

Production

A Paramount (in Spain) release of a Vaca Films, Morena Films, TeleCinco Cinema (Spain)/La Fabrique de Films, La Fabrique 2 (France) production, with the participation of Tele 5, TVG, Canal Plus. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris). Produced by Emma Lustres, Borja Pena, Juan Gordon, Alvaro Augustin, Franck Ribiere, Verane Frediani. Executive producers, Elena Manrique, Pilar Benito, Javier Ugarte. Directed by Daniel Monzon. Screenplay, Jorge Guerricaechevarria, Daniel Monzon.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Carles Gusi; editor, Cristina Pastor; music, Roque Banos; art director, Anton Laguna; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrick Ghislain. Reviewed at Paramount screening room, Madrid, July 23, 2009. (In Venice Film Festival -- Venice Days; Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Luis Tosar, Alberto Ammann, Antonio Resines, Marta Etura, Carlos Bardem, Manuel Moron, Luis Zahera, Vicente Romero, Fernando Soto, Jesus Carroza, Manolo Solo, Xavier Estevez.
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