Within minutes of beginning his tour of the prison where he is to begin working as a guard the following day, Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) is struck on the head by falling debris: it’s not an accident. The experienced guards who are escorting him place him in an empty cell rather than carrying him to the infirmary, a decision which is to have fateful consequences when an inmate riot immediately erupts and they are forced to flee for their safety, leaving Juan to fend for himself. Juan regains his senses quickly and decides that his only chance of survival is to pretend that he is a new inmate, a desperate charade that will have entirely unforeseen consequences for him and for others, including his pregnant wife.
The brief outline above reads like the synopsis of a tense ‘men behind bars’ potboiler from the early ’70s, and the first 30 minutes or so of the film play out like one, as the characters are introduced and the central narrative conflict (the tense stand-off) is established. We’ve seen Cell 211’s key players in other prison films: the sympathetic older guard, the officious prison services bureaucrat, the sadistic guard, and of course, the charismatic and ruthless ringleader of the riot. Of these, the most arresting performance is Luis Tosar’s (Mr. Nice, The Limits of Control) as Malamadre (Bad Mother, or Badass) the prisoners’ leader. Tosar’s large, dark, deep set eyes give him a searing, Charles Manson-esque intensity, and for the first two thirds of the film his presence on screen is enough to keep one’s attention focused, even when the film starts to drift and sag under the weight of its numerous subplots.
Tosar invests Malamadre with more nuances than are standard for this character in keeping with the genre revamping and expansion the writer and director are shooting for. Tosar’s lieutenants (Apache, Releches and Tachuela) are also well delineated, and their characters don’t blur into one another amidst the anarchic mayhem as is too often the case with supporting casts in institutional settings. Antonio Resines, who resembles a less craggy Michael Ironside, is also brutally effective as head guard José Utrilla. Resines shares with Ironside an effortlessly menacing aura that communicates that he is bad news from the moment he appears on screen.
Alberto Ammon is likable as the Christ-like Juan Oliver who is irreversibly transformed by his immersion in the riot, but the plot contrivance that is key to his ultimate transformation is just that: contrived and unbelievable. And therein lies the main problem with Cell 211; in attempting to create a film with much deeper resonance than a simple genre exercise, the writer and director overreach themselves, utilising overly complicated plotting that clogs the arteries of the narrative. All that the convoluted story really accomplishes, with distinct Spanish flavouring, is to illustrate a point which most of us already know: that prisons are hellish, barbaric places, and inmates are usually crushed beyond redemption by the experience of being incarcerated.