I’m guessing you have to know a lot more about the pre-history of the Spanish Civil War than I did going into “Gun City,” a sprawling multi-character muddle film noir take on those years titled “La sombra de la Ley” in Spain.
I know a little of that history, just enough to be just lost enough to not get much more out of than “Damn, they were trigger happy in 1921 Barcelona” and “Boy, those Catalans sure could suck down those cancer sticks!”
It’s a lumbering “ticking clock” detective tale/historical drama so slow and obsessed with “style” that it never gets going. Here’s the Hollywood film this Luis Tosar (“Eye for an Eye,” just seen in “The Vault”) brought to mind — “Mulholland Falls.” Like that one, it’s a murky tale of corruption, unclear alliances, of fedoras, trench coats, tommy guns and cigarettes — oh so many prop cigarettes.
Here’s what we know about early 1920s Spain in general and Barcelona in particular. It was a powder keg, a country swirling down the drain for the umpteenth time thanks to an idiot, high-handed king, a broken government, corrupt police and a newly-ruinous war in Spain’s last African colony.
A trainload of arms is ambushed and hijacked and the local cops are in so deep with mobsters they have know way of knowing if the mob or the “anarchists” organizing the strikes that are crippling an already invalid state are behind it.
Enter the big brooding bruiser nicknamed “The Basque.” Aníbal Uriarte silently strolls in from Madrid, barges in on the “Information Bureau” (police detective) chief Rediu (Vicent Romero) and his goons and starts riding along for “round ups,” witnessing torture and participating in extra-judicial murders.
“Welcome to Barcelona,” the cops growl as the Inspector “tests” his new “help” by ordering him to get his hands bloody. Rediu complains about the strikes, and the “more work” coming the police department’s way, with “fewer men” do carry it out. We wonder just what “work” means, in this context.
Toughest of the police toughs under Inspector Rediu is the cold-eyed killer (Ernesto Alterio) nicknamed “Tisico,” aka “T.B.” He’s quick to turn to violence, quick to suspect fellow cops of taking more than their fair share of shakedown money and sadistic to one and all.
The big local club owner and mob boss is The Baron (Manolo Solo), who dabbles in porn and sex trafficking and keeps his star stripper/singer/dancer, the sultry Lola (Adriana Torrebejano) under his thumb. Might the Baron have his hand in arms dealing?
And then there are the allied leftists and labor organizers led — barely — by Salvador Ortiz (Paco Tous). Young hotheads among his strikers want to meet the constant threats from factory owners and the repression, extra-legal violence of the cops with violence. At least his daughter, Sara (Michelle Jenner) is still all about “peaceful protests.” Until, that is, the cops murder a young woman in her movement.
The Basque must hide his hand, pick his spots to intervene (rape seems to be one place he draws the line), sniff around for answers and promise cooperation, loyalty and/or help to this or that faction as he races — ever so slowly — to locate the cache of military arms that could embolden whoever has them to start a civil war.
The actual Spanish Civil War didn’t erupt until another circuitous decade had passed, with changes in government and a fascist alliance with the army, the wealthy and the Catholic Church. It’s easy to feel the strain that director Dani de la Torre and screenwriter Patxi Amezcua went through to wrestle a coherent “Yojimbo” version of real Catalan/Spanish history out of this.
Tosar is our tour guide through all this. But as his “Basque” is a man of few — VERY few — words, that’s not a natural role for the character to play. There are too many other figures — military governors, a police commissioner, etc. — who further muddy up the associations, alliances and loyalties.
What does fit is the “Yojimbo” play-everybody-off-against-everybody-else model that the script toys with. The classic samurai film built on this plot was remade as a Bruce Willis/Walter Hill thriller, “Last Man Standing” back in the ’90s.
Tosar’s Basque doffs his jacket and joins in with a striker/strike-breaker brawl. But we can’t tell who he’s beating up, which side he’s on. This happens time and again, right up to the finale.
There are lustrous period settings (Santiago de Compostela doubled for 1920s Barcelona) and costumes, and showy bits of circling camera work to take in the sights, and the skin, of our star dancer character. There’s even a “Bonnie & Clyde” tin Lizzie car chase and Patty Hearst “political” bank robbery that the characters manage to sneak in between smokes.
The performances are of passing interest, but Tosar gives us little to grab hold of and while Jenner provides much of the passion of the piece, many others — especially Toerrebejano — are given short shrift.
Perhaps, as the no-help-at-all closing titles fill us in on the “true” aftermath of this somewhat “true” story, the filmmakers felt more bound to “facts” than this stylized, violent formula noir lets on.
“Gun City” doesn’t do either the true or the film noir riff on it enough justice to matter.
Rating: TV-MA, bloody violence, sexual assault, near nudity and lots and lots of smoking
Cast: Luis Tosar, Michelle Jenner, Vicente Romero, Manolo Solo, Adriana Torrebejano, Paco Tous, José Manuel Poga and Ernesto Alterio
Credits: Directed by Dani de la Torre, scripted by Patxi Amezcua. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:06