“Unit 7” is that rare beast, a hard-hitting corrupt-cop thriller that’s more about people than plot. Set in the late 1980s, when the city of Seville was about to become a global focus of attention, the pic offers a tough, tender take on the rise and fall of a supposedly crack squad of ne’er-do-wells, rooted in a local community that helmer Alberto Rodriguez (“Seven Virgins,” “After”) knows well, evokes beautifully and seemingly loves unconditionally. This highly charged, often enthralling reworking of standard motifs merits offshore interest.
The eponymous unit consists of four plainclothes cops charged with cleansing Seville’s streets of drugs and prostitution before the 1992 Intl. Exhibition rolls into town. Ambitious, inexperienced Angel (Mario Casas) is married to Elena (Inma Cuesta) and dreams of being an inspector. Intensely religious Rafael (Antonio de la Torre, playing a borderline psychopath not unlike his character in Alex de la Iglesia’s “The Last Circus”) is given to publicly humiliating dealers by stripping them of their clothes. Mateo (Joaquin Nunez) is a tubby, motor-mouthed barfly. Less distinctive all around, Miguel (Jose Manuel Poga) supplies a normalizing counterweight to his colleagues’ excesses.
The team’s problems start after a raid during which Angel, wanting a piece of the action, quietly slips a package of cocaine under his belt. Before long, the boys are planting drugs on their targets and using increasingly violent methods to attain results, while the media paint them as barrio Robin Hoods. As Angel becomes increasingly explosive, the profoundly lonely Rafael unwisely brings addict Lucia (Lucia Guerrero) into his home and tries to clean her up; before long, they fall afoul of the neighborhood and the anti-corruption squad.
The pic is unfailingly gripping in its depiction of the group dynamics among these four intensely insecure men. Finally given a script that allows him to flex more than just muscles and attitude, one-time heartthrob Mario Casas (“Neon Flesh”) does good work as Angel becomes increasingly unhinged, while Torre, almost without moving a facial muscle, manages to eke out a little sympathy for a character who enjoys bashing people’s mouths with a hammer. Secondary roles are uniformly authentic, scripted and played with the understanding that also informed helmer Rodriquez’s previous film, “Seven Virgins.”
Though it meets its quota of efficient but unspectacular chase sequences and musical montages, the pic offers grace notes of tenderness and subtlety, including the true-but-surreal moments that are a hallmark of Andalucian life as well as Rodriguez’s style, such as when Mateo asks for something to nibble on from a barman they’re threatening, or when the boys stride, armed, through a living room where a couple of elderly ladies are having coffee.
Beyond the specifics, “Unit 7” reps a contempo update of classic Spanish picaresque, marrying it to a critique of a system based on envy and greed. Commenting on how the line between cop and criminal has become essentially meaningless, the film has much to say about the roots of the sorry economic mess in which Europe now finds itself.
The violence is pretty raw, with soundwork making a crucial contribution. Alex Catalan’s lensing captures the chaotic, overheated labyrinths of the Seville barrios to which tourist videocameras rarely have access, while Julio de la Rosa’s score is elegantly restrained.