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Torrente, The Stupid Arm Of The Law
(a.k.a. Torrente, El Brazo Tonto De La Lay)
(1998)

Director: Santiago Segura          
Cast:
Santiago Segura, Javier Cámara, Neus Asensi


Although it's never really had a giant film industry, Spain has made a considerable contribution to cinema over the decades (certainly a lot more than the idiot filmmakers of my country.) There are some types who will claim that these great contributions Spain has made has come from making Oscar-winning movies like All About My Mother, Belle Epoque, and To Begin Again. Others will gush over directors like Carlos Saura, Bigas Luna, or Victoria Abril. As for myself, I say: Oh, give me a friggin' break! Okay, okay, maybe I am a soulless ignoramus who can't appreciate beauty, foreign cultures, as well as fine art. Maybe I don't know art... but I know what I like, and what I like to watch are real movies. And Spain has also made some major contributions to this genre. To begin with, there are countless examples when they have helped out with the making of Italian (and other European) movies. Many times it was simply as co-producers, kicking in cash to finance the movies. But there were plenty of times when these films were actually shot in Spain, meaning they could contribute actors, locations, and crew.

Strangely, despite all the co-productions Spain made with Italy and other countries that resulted in world-wide successful real movies, the actual creative talent of these successful movies was usually not Spanish. It would seem with all these years of wheeling-and-dealing would eventually result in Spain having a domestic film industry that would have Italian-like success world-wide, but this was not to be. Certainly, Spain has had more success than many other European countries in selling its movies abroad. This can be proved simply by mentioning two names: director Jesus Franco (The Awful Dr. Orloff, 99 Women) and actor/writer/director Paul Naschy, a.k.a. Jacinto Molina (Night Of The Werewolf, The Beasts' Carnival), who have warmed the hearts of millions with their entertaining movies. In fact, both men are still working to this day. But apart from them, what do we on this side of the Atlantic know of more recent Spanish cinema? (The real kind, that is.) Not much. About all we hear about nowadays are the Spanish-U.S. co-productions done by Fantastic Factory (Dagon, Faust, Arachnid). But there's a lot more going on than that. To prove this, and to give a tip of the hat to my readers in Spain, this week I am reviewing Torrente, The Stupid Arm Of The Law. A quite unarty comedy, it was a huge box office success in Spain, but to this date remains almost totally unknown over here.

The title is reportedly a spoof of what the Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra was called in Spain (Cobra, The Strong Arm Of The Law.) But as it turns out, Torrente isn't a spoof of Cobra, even though the movie is about Hey, Canadian distributors! If the Spaniards can make slick-looking movie posters on small budgets, why can't you?another hard-nosed cop. Torrente (Segura, who also wrote and directed the movie) is unlike any other tough cop that you've seen in a movie. We quickly realize this in the first scene, when Torrente swaggers into a bar after a long hard day and slams down several shots of hard liquor... before starting his scheduled night shift. He reacts to the sight of teenagers breaking a store window with bats by laughing "Kids!", and ignores all other obvious signs of crime as he drives the streets of Madrid... though when he sees an innocent black man returning home with groceries, he jumps out to verbally abuse him, breaking the fellow's finger for good measure. He lives in a filthy apartment with his sickly father, whom he wheels out on the sidewalk each day and leaves alone for hours at a time so his father can beg and give him some extra cash in his pocket. In his spare time, he takes his machine gun to the city park to shoot cans. When he finds himself in the middle of a robbery while shopping at the local convenience store, he takes the opportunity to pocket some food and sneak out of the store while the clerk is being held at gunpoint.

Clearly, Torrente is not the supercop that we usually see in movies, right down to his looks, having a sweaty and unshaved face topped off with unkempt hair (the little there is), and the clothes on his small frame having not been to the dry cleaners in months. Apart from the fact there's still some part in him that desires to pursue and stop genuine bad guys, you can't find anything genuinely positive to say about him. Yet despite him being just about the ultimate human scum, there is something about him that makes him a strangely likeable character all the same. It took me a while to figure out just what is was with this cucaracha that appealed to me. I realized that while I and just about anyone would despise most of what Torrente does, I was in envy of that the fact that he had no fear. He felt free to speak and do exactly what he so desired, and he didn't give a hoot about any consequences; most times he was able to handle what happened as a result, and if the results were bad despite his best efforts, he was able to dust himself off and quickly continue where he left off. Haven't you ever wanted to yell out loud and complain about something bad in a restaurant? Well, maybe without using racial slurs like Torrente, but I dare you otherwise not to be envious of Torrente having the guts to shout about how he finds the food terrible at the employees of the Chinese restaurant he dines at.

Sometimes Torrente does overstep our level of tolerance, but there is usually something done subsequently to make up for it. His antics at that Chinese restaurant get him physically thrown out. And the victimized black man later brings his tough cousins with him to confront Torrente (Torrente's initial comic reaction to the cousins, however, contains a questionable gag that may explain why American distributors have not picked up the movie.) Other times, Torrente does or says something so unbelievably crude or gross that you can't take it seriously and laugh instead, like when he cheerfully confesses out loud that he finds pregnant women hot because of what they obviously did to get into that state. You have to admire Segura for having the cojones to create such a crass character, not just as the writer and director, but playing the role himself. After seeing him play Torrente, I simply can't imagine anyone else playing the role with such exactness, bringing all the bald, sweat, and jeers the character needs.

Though Segura legitimately had the right to make the movie completely his, he was generous enough to give room to some of his supporting cast to shine. As Rafi, the youth Torrente befriends so he can get into the pants of his cousin, Cámara (Sex And Lucia) has a quiet charm that makes his cop-wannabe character a very likable one. Playing his cousin, Asensi (Arachnid) plays the role mostly straight, though a few occasions get her character's sluttish side into action and result in some good laughs. And as Torrente's father, Tony Leblanc manages to give the movie some additional hilarity with his small role by being amusingly senile. On the other hand, the two actors who play the drug kingpins Torrente eventually finds himself pursuing (Manuel Manquiña, and Espartaco Santoni of The House Of Exorcism) are given little to do, in more than one sense. Despite that fact that the movie assigns them the role of villains, surprisingly they aren't give that many scenes to appear in. And in the few scenes they are in, they don't really get to do that much of anything resembling humor. One scene where Manquiña (or was it Santoni? It was hard at times to tell apart their underdeveloped characters) confronts Torrente's uncomprehending father could have been a comic gem, but the movie makes almost no effort to exploit the opportunity.

In fact, almost all of the scenes involving Manquiña and/or Santoni are played very straight. Much straighter than you'd think; they are involved in some activities that you don't typically find in a comedy, black or otherwise. For example, take the time when Manquiña (or was it... etc.) believes one of the employers at the Chinese restaurant, where his drug operation is located, has been stealing from him. To try and get the tied-up guy to talk, Manquiña (or... etc.) first has him beaten, and getting no results from this, slices off the guy's ear. Still not getting the answer he wants, he gets a corkscrew, plunges it in the guy's kneecap, and turns it around for an agonizing amount of time. Then he finally just kills the guy. The scene takes forever to finish, and the brutality that's inflicted comes across in a remarkably convincing way; we can well understand the pain the victim is going through. I can't be absolutely certain if this scene, at least the corkscrew bit, was meant to be funny. Probably not, but even if it was, the scene seems way out of place for any kind of comedy. This isn't the only time when the movie is rudely interrupted by extreme brutality; there are a few other cases (all involving the movie's protagonists), such as one individual falling out of a window and subsequently seen as a broken corpse lying on the street, and one other guy who is under a car that suddenly explodes into a gigantic and fiery fireball. Oh, the hilarity.

One could always argue that this kind of thing is a cultural difference, and that the citizens of the specific culture the movie was intended for would find such material funny. But honestly, I doubt it in this case. To be sure, there is some material that strongly suggests that it would be better appreciated by Spaniards, specifically some throwaway gags concerning European sports. Otherwise, the kind of humor to be found in Torrente is of a universal nature; slapstick, exaggerations of base human desires, the pairing of two people with grossly different personalities (Segura and Cámara make a likeable and funny comic team), and good old toilet humor. Segura clearly shows talent at not just performing comedy, but writing it as well. That's not to say his screenplay is without some bumps in it, beside those previously mentioned scenes of extreme violence. There are several instances when the plot comes to a sudden halt when the characters take a break from the path they are pursuing in order to do something that has absolutely no influence on the plot. For example, after Torrente and Rafi successfully recruit Rafi's pals to join them in their plan to bust the local drug operation, the group all of a sudden decide go to a techno club... for no particular reason. Though the idea of Torrente in a techno club sounds like it would compensate for the detour with some easy but genuine laughs, for some reason the scene falls flat. In fact, most of the failed comedy in the movie comes from detour scenes like this one.

As a director, Segura has the same attributes as his writing; good overall, but with some rough edges. It's clear that Segura didn't have a lot of money to work with, but surprisingly he works that to his advantage. The Madrid that's seen here is not the clean and majestic one we see in postcards. Here we see another side to the city, a side that just about any big city in the world has. Instead of taking us to locations expensive to shoot at, Segura shows us the rotting core of the city, with its crumbling buildings and garbage-strewn narrow streets. Clearly, someone as scummy as Torrente could only exist by being born and raised in such an environment. The slightly seedy look to the cinematography and the simple camera movements also ensure to keep the look and feel of this environment down at this level. When it comes to shooting the basics of the movie, such as shooting the actors in their performances, Segura also does well. The one thing he needs to work on, at least from this movie, is in directing action sequences. The car chase in the middle of the movie is surprisingly dull, considering that it seems to have been intended to have the feeling of a rollercoaster out of control. There is also a shootout at the end of the movie that is extremely hard to follow. But since the movie's focus was on comedy, the most important question I should answer should be if I found the movie funny enough. I certainly did, and I don't think I have to answer the second most important question (which is: Is this a real movie?) In fact, I found the movie funny enough that I hope to soon track down a copy of the sequel.

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See also: Don't Die Too Hard!, Find The Lady, Strange Shadows In An Empty Room

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