Netflixable? Catalan Kid Comes of Age in Crime in post-Franco Spain — “Outlaws (Las leyes de la frontera)”

Film fans got our first taste of what life was like in Spain after the death of the dictator Franco via the films of Pedro Almodovar, which captured an almost giddy liberation.

The new Catalan thriller “Outlaws,” “Las leyes de la frontera (Laws of the Border)” in Spain, offers us a vivid, dramatic and dramatically different take on those heady days. This adaptation of a Javier Cercas novel may be a bit drawn-out but it is a sometimes nervy, always beautifully immersive trip back in Spanish time.

As this Around the World with Netflix film opens with a lawyer (Javier Beltrán) visiting an old acquaintance in prison, we know the story has but two purposes. It will show us who from his past he’s visiting, aka “who survived,” and it’ll tell us how the lawyer, whom this “gang” he used to run one with nicknamed “Gafitas” (glasses), managed to avoid prison himself.

It’s a straight-up “coming of age” story, a “400 Blows/Breathless” mashup capturing a nerdy, bullied teen who has no “tribe,” so he falls in with the wrong one.

But “falls in with” suggests young Nacho (Marcos Ruiz) had some say in the matter. We’ve seen him picked-on, and watched him find a little oasis in the Gerona (north of Barcelona) arcade where he lives. The second time the older, harder Zarco (Chechu Salgado) strolls in with the curly-mopped siren Tere (Begoña Vargas) we see what’s coming, even if “Gafitas” doesn’t.

She turns on the sultry charm, an invitation is proffered and next thing he knows, timid Gafitas is hanging with “hooligans” at their favorite bar.

He’s introduced to street talk, beer, marijuana and a way to behave around the opposite sex. And not being stupid, he figures out pretty quickly that this gang of fellows named Gordo, Chino, Piernas and Guille want his help robbing the nice old man who gave him a job at the arcade.

Today we’d call it “grooming,” the teasing, testing, rewarding, seducing and punishing that charts his descent into crime.

“Outlaws” will test what Marco is willing to do and when, as it charts his deepening involvement in petty thefts, baiting snatch-and-grab candidates and using his command of Catalan to help pick houses to break into.

Young Ruiz occasionally oversells and at other times undersells Nacho’s journey to Gafitas. The character’s lack of resistance can be explained by the pitiless abuse he’s been getting from a quartet of gutless toughs at school, and his sense that there’s not enough help coming from his family. But the performance doesn’t pull us in so much as let us join Gafitas as he watches this flashback pass by his eyes as he waits to visit a prison inmate decades later.

Director Daniel Monzón has a lot of experience in heist pictures (“The Biggest Robbery Never Told,” “Yucatán”) and he stages the robberies that follow with skill and just enough verve. He and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría park the inevitable “Nacho faces his bullies after becoming Gafitas” moment late enough to make us wonder if they’ll skip that rite-of-passage scene such movies always deliver.

The love affair is similarly on slow simmer, which waters down its impact and accounts for the film’s tendency to dawdle and a finale that is a lot more a letdown than it should be. At least Monzón makes the most of the two police chases the film affords him.

It’s also a mistake to try and wedge in a separate point-of-view, that of a new and not-yet-corrupted cop (Carlos Serrano), showing us police efforts to cope with this “epidemic,” as they’ve “never had gangs here, before.” This thread is a distraction up to the point where it’s meant to pay off, and there we realize it isn’t developed enough to give us all the information we need.

Still, with every Seat, Peugeot or Citroen hot-wiring, every move the shy kid makes on the alluring Tere, every crime he participates in, we see this middle class boy stepping further away from the comfortable life his family has charted for him and toward one that even Zarco knows is not for him.

“You’ve seen what you had to see,” the ex-con tells him (in Spanish with English subtitles, or dubbed into English). “From now on, everything is the same…or worse.”

That’s as good a line as any thriller this year has managed. Not all the dialogue has that crackle or profundity.

But with a Catalan Gipsy Kings-flavored score by Derby Motoreta’s Burrito Kachimba and just enough action to get by, “Outlaws” delivers on its promises, even if nobody involved could figure out a graceful exit.

Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex, nudity, drinking/smoking, profanity

Cast: Marcos Ruiz, Begoña Vargas, Xavier Martin, Carlos Oviedo, Carlos Serrano and Javier Beltrán

Credits: Directed by Daniel Monzón, scripted by Jorge Guerricaechevarría and Daniel Monzón, based on a novel by Javier Cercas. A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:07

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.