You have to give it to "Nicotina" in the originality department: Not its real-time gimmick, not its Mexican setting, not its unusually clever plot. No, it's the only anti-anti-smoking movie ever made. It's about a bunch of fools who are trying to give up their ciggies, but the anguish and despair they feel drives them to make bad decision after bad decision until all are in jail or heaven.
Brother, its message seems to be light up, suck hard, breathe out those cool rings, and just enjoy.
An inspired bit of Spanish black comic lunacy, clearly influenced by Quentin Tarantino back when he was good, it follows one of those crime capers ruled by Murphy's Law: What can go wrong does go wrong, always, absolutely and usually con brio.
The setting is the sleazy criminal environs of Mexico City. The underlying transaction that will spell catastrophe for all appears to be this: Two low-rent crooks (Lucas Crespi and Jesus Ochoa) will supply a computer disk with Swiss bank account info to two Russian gangsters in exchange for a stash of diamonds. But the disk with the codes will expire in 24 hours, so everything must be done quickly.
Alas, the computer hacker is trying to quit smoking (as is one of the thieves, and a pharmacist and his wife in the neighborhood who become involved), and so he's a little off his game. But his game isn't just hacking; it's also peeping. He has a raving psycho mindfreak over his next-door neighbor Andrea (Marta Belaustegui), a cellist, and has wired her apartment for sound and video.
The best part of this is that this hacker screwball, named Lolo, is played by Diego Luna, possibly the mildest, most androgynous man in movies. He's so serenely uninteresting he sometimes looks like an alien. Yet it is from his idiocy that all manner of havoc is let slip upon Earth, or at least one section of Mexico City.
So: The crooks pick up the disk and take it to the Russians. Of course, because Lolo has just been discovered peeping by the cellist, who makes a huge scene -- among other things, she sets his apartment on fire -- he has picked up the wrong disk. One of the Russians plugs the disk into his laptop and instead of the codes, what's displayed are images of Andrea in the shower. Guns come out and nearly everybody gets shot. Two of the victims head out into the night, one landing in a barber shop, the other in a pharmacy. In each of these venues, greed, smoke deprivation, too many guns and too much edginess results in even further mayhem.
Meanwhile, the hacker himself is scurrying inefficiently around the edges of the slaughter, trying to make amends for causing it but unable to do so. Now, you have to like this stuff: It's the pure noir world, where everything trends toward catastrophe, and no human motive can be noble or self-sacrificial. You are in the sewer and the best thing about it is that no one pretends it is anything else. Each character acts with bald, base self-interest as primary goal, secret resentments flash to rage and people die.
Yet it's funny, because the director, Hugo Rodriguez, plays it deadpan and can't resist a surreal gag when the possibility arises. In one example, a cop comes into the barbershop where a body lies in the chair. He doesn't notice and one of the barbers must pretend to cut the corpse's hair and keep up a conversation with the recently departed.
The movie's use of real time is a delight. It's 93 minutes long and the action is expertly choreographed; frequently, Rodriguez will use a split screen to keep track of concurrent action or to show something happening outside and something happening inside the same location.
I suppose "Nicotina" is a gimmick film, but it's brought off with such verve it's great fun. But when I came out, I needed a cigarette for the first time in 25 years. Possibly it should carry a warning from the surgeon general in the titles.
Nicotina (93 minutes at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for violence and comic nihilism. In Spanish with subtitles.