Nicotina is being promoted as the Mexican Pulp Fiction, a claim which would lead one to believe that it is either extremely derivative or in some comparative way very good. In fact it is neither and the only similarity it bears to the work of Quentin Tarantino is in its propensity for shooting main characters in the head. Instead, it’s a trite and fairly pointless little heist flick obsessed for some inexplicable reason with smoking cigarettes and shades of not that funny dark comedy. Despite a recent surge in great Mexican filmmaking, with movies like Y tu mama tambien garnering critical praise and filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez tearing it up in the mainstream, good home grown movies must still be pretty hard to come by in Mexico. At least that’s the only thing I can come up with to explain Nicotina’s wild south of the border success (reportedly the highest grossing film in Mexico for 2003). I predict no such ascendancy in America, where we’re spoiled by the flashy works of polished pop culture auteurs like William Shatner and Will Smith. Here, Nicotina is just another ensemble cast heist flick and not a very entertaining one at that.
It opens by introducing us to LoLo (Diego Luna), a pervert computer hacker in Mexico City who gets his kicks by spying on his mildly attractive neighbor via cameras he’s secreted in her apartment. When not stealing her panties, he’s working on a job stealing Swiss bank codes and downloading them on to CD. From there, he and his partners will trade them for diamonds. Except LoLo screws up. His neighbor, Andrea (Marta Belaustegui), finds out about his voyeurism and storms into his apartment where she scatters the CDs he’s made of her, setting many of them on fire. In the ruckus, the CD with LoLo’s poorly explained hacker work on it is mixed up with a CD of Andrea taking a bath or changing shoes or something equally weird, only LoLo doesn’t have time to notice. He grabs what he thinks is the right disc, runs out the door, and screws everything up.
Nearly everyone in the movie smokes voraciously and the one guy who doesn’t inevitably fares no better in the end than those who do. Maybe that’s what director Hugo Rodriguez is trying to say, smoke away because even if you live healthy tomorrow you might get shot in the face. If so, that’s pathetically obvious since that line or some variation of it is repeated in practically every other sentence uttered in the film.
But what these characters are really craving isn’t nicotine, it is money and in specific diamonds, so after LoLo blows the deal the movie splits up into several different storylines in which various quirky people live out their greed induced fantasies. Nothing works out and at some point the cops become involved. Nicotina deserves some credit here since it’s the first movie I think I’ve ever seen portray the Mexican police as anything other than corrupt and wholly evil. Here the police force is composed of kind and amicable neighborhood watchmen, who seem to get trampled down by the morally bankrupt and evil people they’re sworn to protect.
Nicotina never lifts itself above the other clones of its genre, content instead to lift bits from folks like Guy Ritchie (pre-Madonna) or even worse Death to Smoochie and give it a Mexican flair. Giving it a Mexican flair means throwing in an obnoxious and head pounding soundtrack that at one point became so bad and so loud I seriously considered leaving the theater. The music is its own kind of bizarre and horrendous mental torture, often mixed with blaring and screeching sirens to kick the pain up another level. Luckily the theater in which I saw it thought that meant they should turn the sound up. All the way. Frankly though, I doubt it would be much better even at lower volumes. It is subtitled, so on home video muting might be a good option. At times the noise pollution is so bad that even if the film were better than a cheap version of Snatch in Spanish, the aural torture it subjects you to would make it unwatchable. Maybe this sort of evil audio devilry is commonplace in Mexico City. If so, Rodriguez has done a great job in capturing it and thank you for warning me; I’ll make sure never to go further south than Laredo.
What does work is a good performance from rising star Diego Luna as the aforementioned freakshow who starts this mess. His innocent face and hesitant stumbling make his character surprisingly sympathetic, especially for a peeping Tom. His turn here isn’t all that different from the great work he’s done in movies like The Terminal and Open Range, except that he perhaps seems more comfortable working in his native tongue.
There isn’t much you’ll remember from Nicotina, except for minutes spent covering your ears in between dialogue. The things thrown in as comedy bits never stick and the cast isn’t always as talented and interesting as you’d expect from people hired for a quirky heist ensemble piece. It isn’t a terrible movie, but hardly one worthy of being compared to the blistering creativity of Tarantino, or even the lesser of his brethren. It’s an overly self aware film trying too hard to be stylish, too hard to be edgy, and in doing so only mimics filmmakers that are legitimately good at those things. In limited release, Nicotina certainly isn’t worth the trouble to seek out; that is unless you’re stuck living in Mexico, then there’s a good chance you might not have anything better… yet. Hold out for more Y tu mama tambien’s.