Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Jesús Ochoa and Lucas Crespi cover Diego Luna when a deal goes south in ‘Nicotina.’
Legal Stimulants

Smoking kills in a very literal way in the lowbrow Mexican crime flick Nicotina.


Cinema Latino de Fort Worth is fast giving the other art-house theaters a run for their money when it comes to Spanish-language imports. The Eastside venue still mostly runs subtitled versions of Hollywood movies, but it was the only place in Tarrant County last year to screen Lucía Lucía. After reverting to the Hollywood stuff for a while, it’s now showing A Day Without a Mexican (which opened in late May there and at Loews Cityview) and Maria Full of Grace, and this week it unveils Nicotina, an English-subtitled criminal farce in the vein of Elmore Leonard’s fiction — and a highly enjoyable one.

Diego Luna is the only actor in this movie that most gringo audiences will recognize, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s the star of this show. This is very much an ensemble piece. Luna plays a Mexico City apartment superintendent and computer hacker named Lolo who’s trying to help a bunch of Russian mobsters illegally tap into a Swiss bank’s reserves. He has the access codes burned onto a c.d., but the trouble starts when he accidentally gives the mobsters the wrong disc. The deal goes bad and people wind up dead, and the hijinks of the ensuing evening have ripple effects on the lives of 10 people. These include Andrea (Marta Beláustegui), a hot Spanish tenant whom Lolo’s spying on via hidden cameras in her room; a harried middle-aged pharmacy worker named Clara (Carmen Madrid) who’s under the thumb of Beto, her handsome but ogre-like husband and boss (Daniel Giménez Cacho); and a Russian (Norman Sotolongo) with a half-shaved face who staggers into a barbershop run by a bickering couple (Rafael Inclán and Rosa María Bianchi). He dies in their chair, but not before their greed is piqued when they overhear him talking about the diamonds that he’s carrying somewhere about his person.

Criminal venality and pettiness drive the plot, and screenwriter Martín Salinas serves it all up with the right mix of whimsy and meanness. Both innocent and guilty people die in this movie, and it’s funny because of the way they blunder into deadly situations and foster misunderstandings. The movie’s title comes from the fact that the characters are as frequently driven by nicotine addiction as by other base motivations — this is a movie held together by cigarettes. Beto is incredibly irritable throughout the film because he’s trying to quit smoking; he’s so desperate that he tries to light up while he’s in the shower. Meanwhile, the two low-level gangsters who were trying to broker the deal for the access codes hold a running argument about the health risks of smoking versus the pleasures of that habit. The older, native-born hood (Jesús Ochoa) takes time out from that conversation to chide his Argentinian protégé (Lucas Crespi) for not perceiving the difference in Mexican Spanish between ahora (“now”) and ahorita (“right now”). The movie’s sprinkled with little details such as this, and they help give character to the proceedings.

The cast performs the material capably, though a few performers stand out. Luna plays against type effectively, shelving his boyish charm in favor of subtle creepiness as a maladjusted computer geek. Still, he doesn’t make as much of an impression as Madrid, who turns her submissive wife’s yearning for a little control over her life into something rather touching. She contrasts starkly with Bianchi’s chilling Lady Macbeth of the peluquería, who’s willing to defile a corpse to get the Russian’s diamonds, all the while holding her crooked brother’s success over her whipped husband and dreaming of running off to Brazil.

Hugo Rodríguez, a longtime producer who previously dabbled in cinematography, occupies the director’s chair on this project. He does a fair job of balancing the movie’s realistic settings with visual tricks that help tell the story — he’s fond of using frames within frames to highlight when someone in the background is hiding something or engaged in activity that’s beneath everyone else’s notice. Ultimately, Nicotina isn’t as good a criminal farce as John Crowley’s Intermission, the astonishing Irish film from earlier this year. It doesn’t have that movie’s wide range of settings or its facility for creating law-abiding characters equal in stature to the law-breaking ones. Yet this little lowbrow genre pic gathers momentum from its starting position to its (literally) explosive finale, and its elements add up to a satisfying hit of entertainment.

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