The filmic equivalent of a convict’s bicep with a “mother” tattoo, the hugely entertaining “Neon Flesh” reps crude, violent, flashy and sentimental fare, but with a sharp, intelligent edge that gets it out of jail. This blood-spattered fantasy about a Barcelona street kid trying to make good for Mom revels happily in its own cliches, delivering well-crafted, high-testosterone entertainment for the under-30 auds at whom it’s aimed. A big crowd-pleaser at the recent Sitges fest, this expansion of helmer Paco Cabezas’ 2005 same-named short has the energy and style to break out offshore, given the right marketing.
Ricky (Mario Casas) was abandoned at 12 by his streetwalker mother, Pura (Angela Molina). He ekes out a precarious living selling tissues, among other things, with help from pimp Angelito (Vicente Romero, a compelling mix of comedy and cruelty) and his junkie g.f., Scrag (Macarena Gomez); Angelito’s hulking, simple-minded minder, the Kid (Luciano Caceres); and transvestite Princess (Damaso Conde), who believes she’s the daughter of the king of Spain.
Ricky is saving up to open a brothel as a gift for Pura when she gets out of jail — a dangerous move, since they would be encroaching on the territory of tough guy El Chino (Dario Grandinetti). In a powerful if depressing scene in which things take a decisively sleazy turn, Ricky and Angelito buy three Eastern European women for the club, and it’s suggested they’re saving the girls from something worse. Sadly for Ricky, when Puri does finally emerge from jail, she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and can’t remember who he is.
Pic’s air of knockabout vulgarity darkens after El Chino gives Ricky a week to raise a huge sum of payoff money. The second half turns on his attempt to raise the cash, involving the kidnapping of Veronica (Blanca Suarez), the teenage daughter of corrupt police inspector Santos (Antonio de la Torre). Nearly all of the characters are sympathetic, or at least marginally more appealing than the even nastier thugs pursuing them, with Ricky, Angelito and the Kid forming an oddly appealing trio.
There’s a lot of plot to accommodate, but Cabeza is up to the challenge; the story may not always be credible, but everything fits into place. Aided by sharp editing, the early scenes move seamlessly back and forth in time and even, briefly, into the characters’ imaginations. And as dumb as it may look at first, the film has a couple of serious points to make, particularly about human trafficking.
The busy visuals chime with the general air of dangerous hyperactivity, with Cabezas cribbing shamelessly from the films of Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting.” Surprisingly, handheld lensing, which one would expect to be the pic’s natural visual idiom, is used only sparingly.
There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments, some spoken but mostly visual, usually involving Angelito; one scene has him smashing his cell phone in disgust, only to pick another one out of his pocket to continue his conversation. Rarely is the humor merely tasteless, but one brief clip of a specialty porn video does push the boundaries.
Indie-flavored score shifts between driving rock and more lyrical, guitar-based fare.