Despite its title, El Nino has nothing to do with global weather systems. It’s a stylish slice of Spanish movie-making and, like a lot of Eurocrime, this drug-smuggling drama leans heavily towards art-house cinema and a long way from outright action-adventure.
The two-hour subtitled film explores themes and situations which Hollywood moved on from 20 years ago – wayward youths (El Nino of the title among them) get tangled up in the margins of a major narcotic organisation, grab for fast cash in a get-rich-quick scheme, and things can’t possibly end well.
Opposing them is a world-weary, isolated police investigator, discredited by his failure to achieve the seizure of a big shipment, and who is most likely being undermined by a corrupt officer in his own unit. He gets demoted to night-time patrols; cue helicopter chases as the drug-runners try to run their fast boats past the customs blockade.
Add a young woman rebelling against her native culture, who wants to cross the border and start a new life in the north. Inevitably, naked frolics in the ocean ensue.
It’s all bit Miami Vice on the face of it, except in El Nino the cocaine is being smuggled between North Africa and Europe, and the boats and jet skis run the gauntlet between deserted beaches in Morocco and southern Spain. And that’s where the whole thing is subtly different to an American movie: the pace is generally slower and the tension blends into the background. It doesn’t SHOUT at you, so much as sneak up on you and captures your attention with its understated story-telling.
El Nino couldn’t be anything other than a European movie, showcasing core characters who are basically decent: criminal, some of them, but not immoral (apart from the feared eastern European gangsters who are painted as the real villains of the piece). Even the inevitable ‘you’re off the case’ argument between the police detective and his boss was deftly executed so it didn’t come over as entirely unbelievable.
There are few moments of outright conflict, although the threat of deadly violence escalates as the characters converge in a neatly-choreographed finale.
There are a couple of clumsy touches, like the overt ‘Moroccan music’ to indicate that the action is taking place on a different continent. The scenes shot in all the famous tourist spots of Gibraltar didn’t exactly ring true, either: there are more secure locations for a dead-drop to pass info for a drug shipment. But the presence of The Rock, looming in the background throughout the film added an interesting political overtone to the film – it casts a long shadow over the surrounding area, in many different senses.
We also got the impression that the subtitles were struggling to keep up with the rapid-fire dialogue – but we understood what was going on well enough. Even through the language barrier, the development of the friendship between the three young men, and the suspicion and mistrust among the police officers, were completely comprehensible.
I personally found the epilogue a touch soppy and less than credible – but enjoyed the rest of the film. Don’t be misled by the mention of Ian McShane; his character gets very little screen time.
Certainly kept our attention throughout: a stylish slice of modern Spanish movie-making.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
El Nino will be available to rent or buy on DVD from Amazon