J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Underworld: Toro

According to in-film news reports, tourism in Andalusia is at an all-time high, but so are unemployment claims. How very Spain. Romano the mob kingpin can relate to both stories. Business is way down at the restaurants he controls, because his former protégé Toro is steering tourists away from the restaurants he controls during his work-release as a cab driver. Toro’s brother López is still part of Romano’s syndicate, but he has been skimming more than a few paella customers. When López’s luck runs out, his brother will reluctantly risk his early parole to help him in Kike Maíllo’s Toro (trailer here), which screens during the AFI Silver Theatre’s Underworld retrospective of crime films from around the world.

There was something fishy about the night Toro was busted and his partner was shot dead by the cops. López was also with them, but he walked away clean. Five years later, Toro has turned his back on crime, driving tourists (away from Romano’s establishments) and seriously dating an understanding school teacher, until the midnight hour.

As usual, López messes up everything. Toro probably would not have gotten involved had Romano not abducted his niece, Diana. He hardly knows her, but he knows she is a good kid. What begins as a rescue mission evolves into an exercise in payback when Toro learns that bullet from five years ago was really meant for him. He is so well acquainted with Romano (and vice versa), his vendetta will inevitably get very ugly.

The fundamental structure of screenwriters Rafael Cobos & Fernando Navarro’s narrative is in keeping with long-established gangster movie conventions, but it gets vicious on a personal level in ways Hollywood would not be comfortable with. However, if you can handle a spot of violence, it sure is slick and pacey. Toro might not do much for tourism, but Maíllo capitalizes on the region’s distinctive modernist architecture, particularly the long, circular internal and external staircases that seem to be a hallmark of Andalusian Brutalism.

As Toro, Mario Casas is a bit vanilla in the first act, but he seethes like a champ when his character gets riled up. Even diehard fans of Spanish cinema have probably never seen Luis Tosar as sleazy as he is playing López. Teenage Claudia Canal shows future movie star potential as the tomboyish Diana, while the veteran thesp José Sacristán chews the scenery like he owns it as the despicable Romano.

Next time you are in Andalusia, you might wonder about the power struggles that put the shrimp on your plate. Don’t let that stop you, because its surely delicious. This film also has a fair amount of spice to it too (yet, the very best films in the Underworld series hail from Asia, such as A Hard Day, I am not Madame Bovary, The Handmaiden, and Black Coal, Thin Ice). Recommended for fans of gangster revenge thrillers, Toro screens this Tuesday (8/8) at the AFI Silver Theatre, just south of the Beltway.

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