The only problem with "Hold-Up!," an engaging period piece about a couple of Argentinian jewel robbers in Madrid, is that it tries just too hard to please.

The only problem with “Hold-Up!,” an engaging period piece about a couple of Argentinian jewel robbers in Madrid, is that it tries just too hard to please. Ambitiously fusing humor, political thriller and tragedy into a whole intended to leave no customer dissatisfied, Eduard Cortes’ feature inevitably spreads itself too thin and falls flat in its second half. But there’s still plenty to enjoy, mostly thanks to a nicely worked script and a superb perf from Guillermo Francella. Argentinian B.O. was excellent over the summer, but pic proved less popular in Spain and seems unlikely to take non-Spanish-speaking territories hostage.

Pic is based on stories that were floating around in the 1950s but were never proven to be true. In 1955 Panama, former Argentinian president Juan Peron is living in exile. Short of cash, he charges sidekick Landa (Daniel Fanego) to pawn diamonds belonging to his former wife, Evita, at a jewelry shop in Madrid. So far, so good, until Gen. Franco’s wife, Carmen Polo — who has a habit of walking into shops and walking away with whatever tickles her fancy — decides she wants Evita’s jewels.

By agreement with the storeowner, Ferran (Jorge Suquet), Landa gives dyed-in-the wool Peron supporter Merello (Guillermo Francella, “The Secret in Their Eyes”) and wannabe actor Miguel (Nicolas Cabre) 10 days to steal the gems back before they disappear into the Franco jewel cabinet. They manage this by dressing up as cops in a well-played heist scene, but Merello is wounded in the escape.

Agile in scripting and execution, the pic’s first hour is winsome, broadly comic fare, built around the father-son-style relationship between Merello and the incompetent Miguel, who treats the whole caper like a thesping gig. Not least among Francella’s skills is his wonderful way with a reaction shot, and much of the fizz escapes from the pic as the injured Merello fades into the background. Francella and Fanego, with whom he has some memorable faceoffs, are head and shoulders above the rest of the cast.

The second half focuses on the attempts by Spanish cops Ramos (Oscar Jaenada) and Naranjo (Jordi Martinez) to trace the whereabouts of the jewels, but the characters’ backstories don’t dovetail with the main storyline, despite the script’s attempts to inject some life into them by, for example, giving Naranjo an eye disease. The chemistry between Miguel and nurse Teresa (Amaia Salamanca) likewise never really sizzles. By the final reel, the pic has become an altogether somber affair, with the nastiness of politics suddenly brought to the fore.

The period details are as well attended to here as they were in Cortes’ previous pic, “The Pelayos,” with d.p. David Omedes bathing ’50s Spain in an appealingly honey-hued light, creating an all-purpose Madrid of smoky jazz clubs, tatty boxing gyms and characterful visages. Period music is likewise well used, though the score by Federico Jusid (another “Secrets” vet) sometimes over-signals emotion.

Some of the pic’s funnier moments are built on language gags about the difference between peninsular and Argentinian Spanish, and will be lost on foreign auds.

Hold-Up!

Spain-Argentina

Production

A Buena Vista Intl. release of an Argentina Sono Films, Tornasol Films, Castafiore Films, Pedro Costa Producciones, Foresta Films, Argentina Sono Films production in association with TVE. (International sales: Latido Films, Madrid.) Produced by Pedro Costa, Gerardo Herrero. Directed by Eduard Cortes. Screenplay, Cortes, Marcelo Figueras, Pedro Costa, Piti Espanol.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), David Omedes; editor, Fernando Pardo; music, Federico Jusid; art director, Edoy Hydallgo; costume designers, Myriam Ibanez; sound (Dolby Digital), Carlos Faruolo; re-recording mixer, Javier Losantos; assistant director, Carlos Gras; casting, Hector Perez. Reviewed at Cines Princesa, Madrid, Oct. 31, 2012. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Guillermo Francella, Nicolas Cabre, Daniel Fanego, Oscar Jaenada, Jordi Martinez, Amaia Salamanca, Jorge Suquet.

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