Tribeca Movie Review: Unit 7 (Narrative Competition)

(forefront, l to r): Mario Casas as Angel, Antonio de la Torre as Rafael

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Finally. An action film that’s more about the characters than the chase … even though the chase is damn good. Lensed by cinematographer Alex Catalán (who received the Tribeca Special Jury Mention for his work), there’s not one shake in this smooth action-cam as it thrillingly follows the ethically challenged police force of Unit 7 while they raid the crack-and-smack infused tenements, tearing after bad guys through narrow alleys, over rooftops and into dank cellars. The camera work is such a departure, we almost forget that there were decades of high-powered thrills and spills without so much as one palsied frame. (Ben-Hur’s chariot, Bullit’s Mustang, Terminator’s motorcycle, Marty McFly’s skateboard … wow. Damn you, Paul Greengrass and your jittery Jason Bourne!)

Directed by Alberto Rodriguez, co-written by Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos (7 Virgins, After), this film noir/cop thriller is set in Spain, in the years preceding the Seville World Exposition of 1992 (“Expo ’92″). The story reflects the actual events, starting in 1987, in which Seville frantically began preparation for the world stage of Expo ’92 by upgrading its infrastructure, building bridges, pavilions, roads, etc. But given that the city was in a state of weedy neglect and lackadaisical corruption, the authorities were desperate to whitewash their city in a new light of tourist-friendly bonhomie – postcard-pretty, safe and clean. When some members of the police – such as this fictional Unit 7 – achieved considerable success in routing out drugs and thugs, the higher-ups chose to ignore the fact that some of the crime fighters’ methods were less than savory. As filmmaker Rodriguez states, “And the truth is that whenever an important event takes place, it is necessary to clean up, [and] host cities must shine. And this gave way to the film’s premise: everyone looks the other way when it’s ‘necessary.’”

(l to r): Joaquin Nuñez as Mateo, Mario Casas as Angel, Antonio de la Torre as Rafael, Jose Manuel Poga as Miguel

But the filmmakers merely use this historical event as a jumping-off point. They deliver four characters who, though grouped together, are individuals at heart. Spanish film veteran Antonio de la Torre plays Rafael, the unit’s de facto leader, a soft-spoken, devout Catholic (though in best Mafioso style, he is not adverse to pummeling someone’s face when he deems it necessary). Following in his footsteps is Mario Casas’ Angel, the newest member of the quartet, who struggles with diabetes and family pressures, all the while intent on promoting himself up through the ranks. The cheery, food-loving fellow is Joaquin Nuñez’ Mateo (think a jovial Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue), and the least forceful fellow is Jose Manuel Poga’s Miguel, relegated to a kind of peacemaker.

The story focuses on Angel, transforming from a frightened, sickly initiate to a callous, immoral thug – no better than those he apprehends – as he acts with a growing disregard for his and his unit’s safety. In one of the film’s later scenes, Rafael and Angel sit side by side at their favorite local hang-out, their images reflected in a mirror that splits the tableau in half. We see two sides of an intriguing coin: one man giving himself over to God, while the other taking on deity-like qualities of his own. They may have experienced the same events, yet their individual psyches dictate disparate paths.

We also have a quasi-love story, with Mateo’s flirtation with the group’s informant and semi-retired prostitute Mahogany (the glorious Estefania de los Santos) turning into something quite tender. Sensitively written, this relationship seems far more intense than the ever-widening gap between Angel and his wife.

An insightful tale about a character’s dance to the dark side is timeless, bringing to mind such protagonists as Michael Corleone in 1972′s The Godfather and Malik in 2009′s A Prophet. Beautifully shot, well-acted, with a fascinating story that blends action and character together in a deft duet, Unit 7 will hopefully get the attention it deserves when it officially releases in U.S. theaters.

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Rating on a scale of 5 corrupt reigns in Spain: 4

Directed by: Alberto Rodriguez
Screenplay by: Rafael Cobos and Alberto Rodriguez
Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Mario Casas, Joaquin Nuñez, Jose Manuel Poga, Imma Cuesta, Julian Villagran, Estefania de los Santos, Lucia Guerrero
Running Time: 92 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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