If cinema is anything to go by, the first day on the job or the day before retirement are invariably going to be the worst days of your life - that is if you manage to survive 'em. Spare a thought, then, for Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann), yet another victim of this common cinematic misfortune. It's not even his first day in this case - a day before he's due to start a new job as a prison warden, he decides to introduce himself to his colleagues. Unfortunately, as a result of an accident involving a homemade shotgun and a badly timed prison riot, he ends up being abandoned in the middle of the prison with the rampaging occupants. Thinking quickly, he discards his shoelaces (makes sense in context) and pretends to be a newly incarcerated prisoner to try and survive the inevitable shanking that would ensue if his true identity was revealed. He's quickly (incredibly, I'd say) taken under the wing of Malamadre (Luis Tosar), the slightly psychopathic leader of this mini-revolt. Juan begins a desperate struggle to survive while simultaneously trying to stop the riot. Also, he has a caring, beautiful and very pregnant wife. Don't worry: we're frequently reminded of this in case you forget.
Finally receiving a wide release almost two years after its Spanish release, I feel it's important to point out that while this review will - spoiler! - veer towards the negative, Cell 211 is enjoyable for what it is. Indeed, the very things I will inevitably criticise in the paragraphs to follow will likely be seen as positives by others. Let me concede that it's well paced: frantic for the vast majority of its running time. I'll also admit that the integration of Spanish social commentary does the film some favours - integrating Basque politics and ETA into a fairly standard prison thriller does give it bite, and the whole thing is a fairly damning critique of Spain's criminal justice system (albeit not one with the power of, say, Japan's Confessions of a Dog). And Tosar as Malamadre is strangely compelling in a charismatic yet oddly vulnerable performance.
Now: on to why the rest of the film is pretty shitty.
OK, maybe that's hyperbolic, but I certainly am a bit bemused at the enthusiastic feedback to the film I've seen elsewhere. The very first scene is symbolic of many of the film's problems: a graphic wrist cutting scene. It's certainly a bold opening to grab the audience's attention, but it became clear to me when the film was over how utterly pointless it was. There's the vaguest of narrative and thematic justifications for it, but shock value seems the central reason for its gratuitous inclusion. You see, this is a film that wants you to think it's balls to the floor tough, but in reality it doesn't have the testicular fortitude to back up the posturing.
As energetically paced as the film is, it doesn't matter when every single of Cell 211's numerous plot twists and contrivances are a) predictable, b) cliched, c) signposted from miles away, or d) all of the above. Indeed, there's an absurd amount of coincidences required to setup the central plot. For a film that aims to sucker punch the audience, it lacks the element of surprise, so all you're left with is blunt force. And blunt it is. The movie's single biggest flaw is the background and motivation given to Juan. Illustrated in pitifully derivative flashbacks, the relationship between our protagonist and his wife is about as subtle as getting hit by a bus. It's the sort of lame, super-basic background information we've seen hundreds of times before, and here all it's doing is clogging up screen time as it hurtles towards an obnoxiously obvious resolution. A series of brief flash forwards to post-riot interviews are equally broad - while they're mercifully brief, they're also so redundant one has to wonder why they were even included in the first place.
Director Daniel Monzón directs proceedings with an eye for the bland and unspectacular. While there is an attempt to establish a documentary style aesthetic, it's simply lacks character. Performances range from the good (the previously mentioned Tolsar) to the bland (Ammann makes an uninteresting protagonist) to the bizarre (some of the inmates have truly unusual and often distracting delivery). Of the side characters, only a single prison guard acts with any sort of dignity: most others are simply there to propel the plot along, no matter how out of character their actions are in the process.
Cell 211 is nonsense, and there's certainly an argument it doesn't have pretensions to be anything else. But just because it's subtitled we shouldn't forgive it for numerous narrative failings and weaknesses. Indeed, from a Hollywood production house - a remake is, predictably, already planned - it's likely critics would have been less forgiving. Personally, as Cell 211 finally entered a preposterous final act, I could only feel disappointment that its flaws outweighed the positives. Because it is, in spite of itself, moderately entertaining - it's just a shame how many cheap tricks are employed for equally cheap thrills.
I have heard a handful of people compare this to Jacques Audiard's superb A Prophet. To compare such an intelligent subversion of the prison movie to this artless silliness is unfair to the extreme.