It may only represent the film’s Spanish distribution route, but there’s something entirely apt-feeling about the familiar Warner Bros. badge at the front of Alberto Rodriguez’s “Smoke and Mirrors”: This slick-as-Brylcreem political thriller may deal entirely in local affairs, but every gleaming nut and bolt of its assembly advertises its helmer’s suitability for U.S. studio fare. Following up his internationally acclaimed regional noir “Marshland” with a larger-scale study of institutional corruption, Rodriguez’s seventh feature proficiently borrows moves from Scorsese, Sorrentino and a surfeit of other stylists to tell the fact-inspired story of sometime spy Francisco Paesa, whose mid-1990s involvement in a former police chief’s embezzlement operation left no line un-double-crossed. A good yarn that nonetheless takes a while to disentangle itself from an overly convoluted setup, “Smoke and Mirrors” is possibly not as universally exportable as the directorial verve it showcases, but it’ll clean up domestically.
“Smoke and Mirrors” is an unnecessarily banal English-language title for a film that, from the first words of its weary-wry voiceover, hardly needs to remind viewers that it’s dealing in matters of shadowy duplicity. (The equally uninspired Spanish title translates to “The Man of a Thousand Faces” — Rodriguez’s film gets away with taking several generic Hollywood cues, but could use a more evocative moniker.) “Like all true stories, it contains a few lies,” our narrator quips in clipped, gravelly tones, promising all the moral fortitude you’d expect from a story of high-ranking government officials and one canny double agent — as well as metatextually covering for the liberties Rodriguez and co-writer Rafael Cobos Lopez have themselves taken with the truth, using Manuel Cerdan’s non-fiction book “Paesa: The Spy of a Thousand Faces” as a mere jumping-off point.
The storyteller here is Jesus Camoes (played by Jose Coronado), a secondary figure whose significance in the knotty plotting isn’t quite apparent until the second half; even then, however, his complicity in the action is never complete. As the film’s introduction skips across years and darts through fundamental political backstory with the briskly ironic tone of many a “GoodFellas” tribute act, it may takes viewers some time to identify Paesa (played with a persistent dry smirk by Eduard Fernandez) as its slippery center. A preternaturally smooth operator who had enjoyed careers as a banker, an arms dealer and a spy — among other things — before the Spanish government sold him out and forced him into exile, he returns to Madrid in 1995 with no work prospects and a sizable chip on his well-tailored shoulder.
So when he’s approached by Luis Roldan (Carlos Santos), a former national police commissioner looking to safeguard 12 million pesetas embezzled from public funds, Paesa spots an opportunity to get his own back at the big guys — setting an elaborate plan of revenge and betrayal in motion. It’s a tall tale that, given a little more levity, could well have been titled “Spanish Hustle,” though while Rodriguez keeps tension and momentum rolling over a well-stuffed two hours, he hasn’t David O. Russell’s eye or ear for absurd or eccentric human detail; the characters serve the caper, not the other way round. Nor does the film’s heavily doctored take on recent Spanish political history cut particularly deep as satire — though local audiences will appreciate its flip anti-authority stance. (Viewers at the San Sebastian premiere jeered heartily in response to one ministerial figure’s insistence that “the Spanish government has never made any deals.”)
For the most part, however, the chief pleasures of “Smoke and Mirrors” are ones of sleek mainstream craftsmanship: Even at its most narratively cluttered points, the film is built and steered like a luxury sedan. Rodriguez has retained the services of his regular cinematographer Alex Catalan; while the caramelized look they’ve forged here isn’t as distinctive as the sunbaked underworld of their previous collaboration in “Marshland,” the deep, warm tones and nimble mobility of the camera help pull us into many a scene that otherwise amounts to little more than middle-aged men in blazers talking.
Editor Jose M.G. Moyano does similarly persuasive work with potentially repetitive material, while Julio de la Rosa’s driving, rock-tinged score — sounding at its most heated points like a polished-up Cream instrumental — may not do much for the film’s Spanish milieu, but sounds wholly Hollywood-ready. “In the game of evolution, the winners are usually the specialists,” a character says in one of the script’s more overworked lines; Rodriguez, on the other hand, looks primed for anything.