It becomes apparent during Nicotina’s 93-minute running time that director Hugo Rodriguez and screenwriter Martin Salinas have watched their share of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie pictures. Nicotina is packed with the same sort of darkly comic aspects that came to be the trademark of those two directors, but manages to dispense with the “wink-wink, look at my genuine appreciation for obscure, unknown cinema” affectations that burden much of Tarantino’s work. Nicotina is not a heavy film, knowing well enough not to take itself seriously, but it is an adept examination of human vices and how far working-class people will go when they are presented with the opportunity to shed their workaday burdens with one momentous decision.

The story, set on a lazy, warm Mexico City evening, is put in motion by a low-level computer hacker named Lolo (Diego Luna, who’s becoming hard to miss these days), who is the crucial cog in a scheme to rob a Swiss bank in exchange for a cache of diamonds. He spends his down time spying on his comely cellist neighbor, Andrea (Marta Belaustegui) through hidden cameras, but he’s too shy and unassuming to be considered creepy. His partners in the caper, Nene (Lucas Crespi) and Tomson (Jesus Ochoa) tool around the city, waiting for Lolo to acquire the account numbers which are to be delivered to a pair of Russian gangsters.

All the while, Nene puffs away on a constant string of cigarettes, citing their esoteric value while the older, wiser Tomson berates him for neglecting to note the significant health risk. As the title suggests, the cigarettes act as the film’s primary metaphor, every major character either possessing the habit or just having gone cold turkey. Meanwhile, Lolo acquires the account numbers and burns them to a disc; that is only until Andrea becomes privy to his network of hidden cameras in her apartment.

After conniving her way into Lolo’s apartment next door, she sends his CD-R collection of hidden camera footage asunder and sets it aflame while Lolo is locked outside. Once he regains entry, now without the trademark code monkey horn-rimmed glasses, he picks up what he thinks is the disc with the account numbers and bolts down to the street where Nene and Tomson are waiting. As luck and convenient plotting would have it, it isn’t the right disc. 

The Russian gangsters, on the discovery of the disc containing something other than account numbers, react harshly and swiftly, as any classic gangster would once they think they’ve been had. Nene and Svoboda, the chief Russian gangster, take bullets, inciting a cycle of selfish violence that continues to devolve as far as the flawed players can remotely rationalize it. Amidst the unfolding chaos, Lolo scrambles around futilely trying to convince those involved that it was his fault, as others continue to fall bereft of his own awareness of the failed scheme’s spiraling after-effects.

Rodriguez and Salinas push the story forward by repeatedly putting the film’s ordinary characters into extraordinary situations, dropping them headfirst into scenarios where their moral well-being gets put to the test. The cigarettes become the major X-factor, manipulating what would normally be a difficult decision and rendering it a decision that should not be foisted upon any mortal being. The film’s dark themes and violence are softened by a snappy pace, some pop film editing tricks, and clever dialogue, turning what could be humorless material into quite the lightweight, enjoyable morality tale. Never thought you’d hear those terms in the same sentence, did you?

Nicotina is diverting stuff, not anything that will garner any foreign-film Oscar nominations (unlike Amores Perros, a fellow Mexican film from the same production company), but quite enough to wash the foul taste of mediocre late summer fare from your palette. In addition to being a well-thought out film, it is also visually appealing, taking on much the same feel as Michael Mann’s Collateral, with many cool, striking nightscapes. It won’t weigh upon your soul, but it’s not supposed to.

The movie is in a limited release stateside, appearing mainly in metropolitan areas with notable Latino populations, so you’ll have to seek it out. But it’s definitely worth a look if you can find it. And for the first and last time, don’t let the subtitles deter you. That’s no excuse, you son of a silly person.

Directed by: Hugo Rodriguez
Cast: Diego Luna, Rafael Inclan, Lucas Crespi, Jesus Ochoa

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