Ian McShane may make top billing in this Spanish crime thriller but it’s his white suit that should take all the credit. We rarely see his face – or him for that matter in El Niño. It does pay to add an international name to the credits. However, it could be argued that writer-director Daniel Monzón – along with co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría – should be enough kudos after Cell 211, their acclaimed and intense prison drama from 2009. They take what they crafted in that film and try it out on a grander, action-packed scale in this, moving between Southern Spain, Gibraltar and Morocco. It’s a solidly-produced watch with exhilarating chases scenes, shot in a TV-cop-drama style.
Young man El Niño (striking-looking newcomer Jesús Castro) spends his days earning a basic living doing up and testing motorboats. He is very skilled at driving the boats – and very fast. After a party with his dreamer friend El Compi (Jesús Carroza, Elvis in Cell 211), the pair meets Halil (Saed Chatiby), a young Muslim who has an uncle, Rachid (Moussa Maaskri of Point Blank fame), an established drug dealer.
Halil and El Compi convince Rachid to try out El Niño as one of his drugs mule transporting the product across The Strait of Gibraltar in a motorboat. Trying to stop the illegal cargo is veteran police officer Jesús (Luis Tosar, Malamadre in Cell 211), a man obsessed with getting a big sting, who helped by partner Eva (Bárbara Lennie) is trying to find El Inglés (McShane), a known drug dealer who operates on the Rock of Gibraltar.
Monzón’s film racks up the tension and pace from the start with an impressive cops-and-robbers car chase followed by an embarrassing ‘drugs’ find. We are introduced to his characters neatly and tactfully, as he sets out his pawns in this crime game, with each one’s incentive known, rather than mere character fodder for the scenes ahead.
Tosar may be on the right side of the law in this, but his ardent stare serves him well to re-captivate audiences again here. He makes a striking image on screen (take one shot of him set against the Rock of Gib), both commanding and unhinged as Jesús, as the pressure of the job – and a police informant – gets to him. As the only female character in El Niño who isn’t a trophy, Lennie as Eva has a harder time making herself heard above buzz of testosterone. Even the more senior officers in the film make sexist remarks that seem dated to a non-Spanish viewer, but may just be a whole cultural thing.
However, blue-eyed Castro marks an exciting acting break here, having been picked from over 3,000 hopefuls by Monzón – a Spanish Paul Newman in fact. What he lacks in acting skills at the moment, he more than makes up in model looks and visual presence (moody being his trademark). His scenes with some of the lesser-known actors highlight his acting shortcomings and feel very rigid, but there is enough tension followed by action to hide this, and Monzón is obviously wise to his protégé’s natural, athletic appeal.
El Niño does not let the viewer rest back on their laurels – it accelerates forward with some action scenes matching (and trumping) any Hollywood production. Though the overall feel is more televised than feature film, almost documentary-like, this actually serves the whole affair far better. The (night and day) speedboat-helicopter scenes are worth the ticket price alone, like something straight out of Police Camera Action! In this sense, we get hungry for more every time things reach a critical bottleneck in the crime drama.
Monzón evokes a healthy social awareness in El Niño too, highlighting the differences between the haves and have-nots and the desperation that drives the mules forward to risk life and limb. This political element is unavoidable, and there is even a brisk dig at the still Anglo-ruled Gibraltar that pro-Spanish audiences will smile at.
El Niño serves as a great vehicle for the careers of all involved, slick realism and a generally engaging plotline that only wavers when the pace is decreased and the inexperience of some actors involved is exposed. Monzón offers another internationally marketable flick that translates well – and manages to give Mr McShane the jammiest job in showbiz as he mysteriously navigates the quaint Gib streets while taking in the sights, almost unrecognisable.