It isn’t hard to see where director Daniel Monzón drew his inspiration for El Niño. From the moment it begins, this Spanish crime thriller practically begs to be considered as an equal to the biggest and best Hollywood blockbusters. And, to Monzón’s credit, he certainly proves himself to be a director who’s capable of delivering superior thrills when the opportunity is given. Unfortunately, due to a plodding script that at once aspires to be a crime thriller, a social commentary and a love story, such opportunities are few and far between.
What makes it particularly frustrating is that it all starts so well. Monzón throws us into a murky world of drug trafficking that’s framed against the Rock of Gibraltar’s sun kissed beauty. Here we find Jesús (Luis Tosar), a dogged detective with inexplicably large eyebrows who’s hunting for notorious drug dealer El Inglés (Ian McShane). Meanwhile, the eponymous Niño (Jesús Castro) is attempting to make a name for himself by acting as a drug mule for his friend’s uncle. Naturally, it isn’t long before these two men, who operate on either side of the law, collide.
Behind the camera, Monzón demonstrates an assured grasp of the medium. His camera, placed in the poised hands of DoP Carles Gusi, sizzles under the heat of the searing Spanish sun. The environment he constructs is one akin to that created by Michael Mann in Miami Vice. It’s an intoxicating climate, oozing with style and pulsating with pressure.
With his foot firmly on the accelerator, the director attempts to pound the audience into submission with a string of punchy chase sequences set across land and sea. Monzón shows himself to have an audacious eye for action, sidestepping Hollywood’s usual barrage of bombastic computer-generated thrills to deliver bold and breathless excitement that’s enhanced by the use of impressive large-scale stunts. The undisputed highlight is an entirely CGI-free night-set pursuit early on between a helicopter and speedboat, in which Jesús attempts to apprehend Niño as he tries to smuggle drugs back into Spain.
It’s generally hard to muster the sort of enthusiasm demanded during such fast and frantic set pieces however, when the rest of the film is so insipid and stagnant. The script, collaborated on by Monzón and screenwriting partner Jorge Guerricaechevarría, is a lumbering mess that wants to be three different films at once. The dialogue occasionally glistens with wit, but the story remains permanently dulled. The inability to find focus, even the eponymous Niño feels like nothing more than a minor cog in his own story, causes a perpetual lack of jeopardy that instills frustration more than it does fervor.
The mélange of stock characters combined with a flimsy narrative of mind-numbing genericism, which stumbles between predictable love story, unfulfilling social commentary and uninspired crime thriller, does very little to help peak your interest. It may have plenty of style, but the only substance to be found in El Niño is the illegal stuff we see being trafficked on the screen.