Don't Inhale

The Mexican caper Nicotina is all smoke and no fire

The conventional wisdom on Nicotina is that it's a Mexican Snatch. Upon first blush, it's easy to see where the comparisons come from--they're both more or less diamond-swiping caper films in which the caper all but fades into the shadows of the guys and dolts incapable of pulling it off--but it also gives Nicotina far too much credit. At least Guy Ritchie's movie, itself a remake of his debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, had Brad Pitt and Benicio Del Toro, speaking in accents that sounded as though they had looped their dialogue in reverse. This import, a hit in Mexico last year only now sneaking its way across the border, has nothing so engaging going for it, save its existence as proof that Mexican cinema is about a decade behind Hollywood. The only thing worse than second-generation Guy Ritchie is fourth-generation Quentin Tarantino, and this movie has the musty smell of 1995 all over it.

It also signals one more backward step in the career of Diego Luna, the Y tu Mamá También co-star who is wasted a little bit more in each film since that breakthrough performance. Mike D'Angelo provides a superb essay on this very subject in Esquire, and it's a subject that's gnawed at film critics ever since he went directly from Alfonso Cuarón's despairing, erotic coming-of-age movie to biding his time in John Carpenter crud and that dispiriting Dirty Dancing sequel and occupying the fill-in-the-blank role as ethnic sidekick in such films as Kevin Costner's Open Range and Steven Spielberg's The Terminal. His Y tu Mamá También co-star, Gael Garcia Bernal, has fared far better with more interesting and ambitious projects, among them playing a young Che Guevara in the upcoming The Motorcycle Diaries, which is a far cry from playing a guy named Button who gets shot just so Kevin Costner can get it on with Annette Bening in his humorless western.

In Nicotina, which unfolds more or less in real time and thus feels significantly longer than its 88 minutes, he plays a creep named Lolo, a computer hacker charged with stealing the passwords to Swiss bank accounts and burning them to a disc, which he and two other would-be criminals (Lucas Crespi's Nene and Jesus Ochoa's Thomson) will trade to a Russian named Svoboda (Norman Sonolongo) for a bag of diamonds. If we're supposed to like Lolo, our compassion for him dissipates early on: When he's not conducting illegal biz on his computer, he's spying on his next-door neighbor Andrea (Marta Belaustegui), a beautiful cellist with a laundry list of boyfriends. Lolo not only intercepts her phone calls but has also installed two hidden cameras in her ceiling, with one directly above her bed. After she catches him, some 30 minutes into a movie in which nothing much has happened to that point, he turns into a whimpering stalker, insisting he was watching her only to protect her--"like an angel," he says, tearing up just enough to break our hearts and turn our stomachs at the same time.

If Nicotina's first half is, pardon, a drag, then it spends the next hour trying to play catch-up: The Russian discovers that Lolo's disc of codes actually consists solely of images of Andrea--there was, ya see, a mix-up, d'oh--and suddenly people start getting shot and running around trying to keep from bleeding all over the place. Nene winds up in a pharmacy owned by a vain jackass named Beto (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who's either criticizing his wife, Clara (Carmen Madrid), for her shoddy work ethic or trying to force her into the bedroom for a quickie. The Russian lands in a barbershop where he's tended to by owners Goyo (Rafael Inclán) and his wife, Carmen (Rosa María Bianchi), a would-be Lady Macbeth who will prove handier with a straight razor than clipping sheers when she discovers that Svoboda has diamonds stored in his belly.

If all this sounds drowsily predictable and numbingly derivative, it is and then some; it's as though director Hugo Rodríguez and writer Martín Salinas watched every movie ever influenced by a Tarantino movie--not the real thing, even--and boiled them into something bland. It isn't even interesting to look at, unlike Ritchie's gimmicky noirs; the tricks, when a scene speeds up for no reason or when a character focuses on one thing and blurs out everything else, feel only like tricks, devices meant to make the movie feel more vital than it is. As for the name, the characters, when not shooting at each other or cutting each other open, spend the entirety of the movie lighting cigarettes, quitting cigarettes or talking about how much they like to smoke cigarettes or hate to quit cigarettes. Get me my Zippo. There's something else I'd like to light up.

 
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