Directed by Daniel Monzón
Call it reverse Hollywood-itis. Earlier this year, Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen exhibited the comic sensibility of any number of widely-lambasted American studio comedies and gave it a mild injection of regional (in its case, Turkish and German) flavor, to puzzlingly glowing notices. This time around, Spaniard Daniel Monzón’s Goya-winning prison thriller Cell 211 takes on a premise so high-concept that Jerry Bruckheimer will self-harm if he finds out someone beat him to the punch with it, and nonetheless manages to escape with some of his dignity intact.
Newcomer Alberto Ammann stars as Juan Oliver, a newly hired swcurity guard at a maximum-security prison, who’s decided to head to work a day early to get the lay of the land. During his tour, he is injured by a seemingly random accident, which turns out to be the beginning of a riot masterminded by the notorious Malamadre (veteran hardman Luis Tosar). He is rushed into the nearest empty cell – 211, natch – as the felons take over the entire wing. Juan, however, as one of the most quick-thinking protagonists in recent movie history, removes his shoelaces and personal effects and strolls out into the now-sealed area, determined to fit in as just another prisoner until he can escape and be reunited with his very pregnant girlfriend (Marta Etura).
Save for Juan’s incredibly rapid acclimatization to his new status – it feels like there’s a reel missing just after his awakening – the film’s first hour is fairly solid, exploiting its loaded opening with panache with help from the devilishly charismatic Malamadre and his suspicious cronies. A documentary-like device in which the prison’s operators reflect back on the incidents portrayed defuses the tension somewhat, but is thankfully ditched almost entirely within minutes. The real difficulties arise in the film’s overstuffed back half, wherein personal complications, political machinations, double-crosses, and entirely unlikely confluences of events conspire to draw our attention away from Ammann’s increasingly nonsensical motivations.
Relentlessly slick but too often transparently constructed, Cell 211 is an occasionally thrilling but naggingly forgettable experience. It’s the anti-Un Prophete, a film unconcerned with the realities of prison life or with any cogent larger point to make about the politics of incarceration. Still, it’s likely superior to its Hollywood remake of the indeterminate future.