Y Tu Compinche Tambien

When Nicotina was released in Mexico last year, director Hugo Rodríguez and writer Martín Salinas, a pair of transplanted (to Mexico) Argentines, were charged with ripping off Pulp Fiction, Run Lola Run, Go, After Hours, and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch—not without justification. The film’s original Mexican title, Cigarros, desamores, y 20 diamantes has the cadence of the Guy Ritchie title Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But Nicotina has more going for it. Many of the above films to which it has been compared have no moral or philosophical points of view. I guess that’s part of their charm. But the fatalism and dark sense of humor that inform Nicotina are not rehashes of Tarantinoesque nihilism. Instead the film is downright moralistic, Hispanic style.

At the beginning of the night’s adventures (the film happens in almost real time) depicted here, two of the characters debate the relative health hazards of smoking, with one character insisting that you simply can never know when one of your cells is going to mutate into cancer, whether or not you smoke. He’s voicing a fatalism, a point of view that gives the film at least a shallow philosophical underpinning. Yes, this argument scene does echo Tarantino’s famous riff on the French name for the Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Pulp Fiction, but here there’s an actual life philosophy behind the dialogue.

Writing in the Village Voice, Leslie Camhi said that “the great theme of the Mexican New Wave [is] the relationship between chance and destiny.”

Nicotina self-consciously enters into that dialogue. It could have been called Chance, Destiny, and 20 Burning Cigarettes. And unlike most of its influences, the film has at least one foot in the real world of crime-ridden Mexico City, rather than in all of the movies its director has ever seen.

I hope I’m not making Nicotina sound like some kind of masterpiece. Its ideas are pretty thin, and it runs out of steam more than once. But it’s still worth seeing while you wait for the next Amores Perros or Y Tu Mamá También. Some will check out Nicotina because of Diego Luna, the only recognizable face in this uniformly strong cast. Recognizable name would be more like it, because I had to look at Lolo several times to make sure the weak, befuddled- looking actor playing him was in fact Luna. This nerdish, passive computer hacker has little in common with the Tenoch of Tu Mamá.

As the film opens, a criminal friend of Lolo, Nene (Lucas Crespi) calls the young hacker to give him a computerized safe-cracking assignment from a couple of Russian mafiosos who are doing business in Mexico City. Though he’s not exactly a criminal at heart, or not a bank-robber at least, Lolo accepts the assignment. He’s going to use his cut to bankroll the classical music career of his beautiful Spanish neighbor, Andrea (Marta Belaustegui). She sees Lolo merely as a neighborly neighbor, not suspecting that he’s thoroughly hacked his way into her life. A high-tech peeping tom (and then some), Lolo has access to her computer, her e-mail, her answering machine, and her bedroom—the latter through the spy camera he’s hidden in her apartment.

Nicotina enters the realm of farce when Andrea finds out that Lolo has been spying on her. When she takes her revenge, Lolo’s CDs get scrambled, and the disk he presents to the Russians is one of the hundreds he has filled with photos of her, rather than the one he had burned with the security codes. In the ensuing confusion, the two sets of gangsters start shooting at each other. The Russian who’s holding the “20 diamonds” of the original title (which was to be the Mexicans’ pay for providing the computer codes) escapes into the Mexico City night, followed by Nene, his sidekick Tomson, and the reluctant Lolo.

Once Swoboda, the escaped Russian, hits the apparently quiet streets of nocturnal Mexico City, Nicotina hits its stride. As they assume their roles as either hunter or hunted, the characters find themselves in situations that allow them to fully reveal their personalities. Nene, the lung-cancer fatalist and by far the most dashing of the crooks, finds himself in an intense short-term relationship with a pharmacist, Clara (Carmen Madrid), whose domineering, irritable (he’s trying to give up smoking) husband is about to push into violent action herself. Tomson, Nene’s gruff sidekick, reveals himself as a softie when his young protégé is wounded.

Swoboda, the Russian on the run, is a screen-filling character. Really. His gut is so enormous that when he’s shot in the belly, you can imagine that he could carry the slug around for years and wonder if the irritation were just something he ate. He’s also got a sideburn configuration that makes him look like an extra from The Howling, and he speaks a Spanish that is grammatically clear, but truly barbarously accented.

After taking the bullet to his belly, Swoboda winds up in a late-night barbershop, where he asks for a complete shave, face and skull, so that his trackers won’t recognize him. As the barber, Goyo (Rafael Inclán) prepares to begin the formidable task before him, he and his shrewish wife, Carmen (Rosa María Bianchi) learn about the robbery and come to believe Swoboda has swallowed the diamonds and is carrying them in his spectacular gut. Carmen takes this news as if she’d gotten a winning lottery ticket. If the Russian were dead, and if they sliced his belly open with Goyo’s razor—the diamonds would be theirs. Hers, that is, if she can just get her wimp of a husband to help her.

This is the strongest of the film’s various threads. In its ghoulishness, it seems the most improbable to a U.S. audience not used to really dark humor a la Buñuel. In a country where Bad Santa seems almost evil, the idea of having the barbers butcher their client for his swallowed diamonds would simply never occur to anybody. “Who’s the audience going to root for?”

But here it works, because the filmmakers simply take for granted that life in Mexico City is dog-eat-dog, and they deepen the material by taking it to its logical extreme. And the old-fashioned decency that veteran character actor Inclán wears on his face gives the scene a moral grounding that keeps it from tipping over into absurdity.

There is also a moralistic streak (again in the style of Buñuel, who was no nihilist) here that is also foreign to the Ritchies and Tarantinos. The film doesn’t celebrate bad behavior. In fact, punishment is swift and sure, and it comes even to the character that Hollywood would most certainly spare. The only characters to survive are those who have not been completely corrupted by the social and moral collapse of the 1990s in the great city. I can well imagine the crime-beleaguered Mexico City audience enjoying a good laugh every time one of these very recognizable crooks meets his—or her—richly deserved fate.

David Theis is the author of Rio Ganges, a novel set in Mexico. He lives in Houston.

David Theis is a long-time Houston writer and a longer-time devotee of Mexican food.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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