Juan (Ammann) is about to start work as a prison guard and is taking a tour of a maximum security area when he is injured slightly in an accident and left behind as a riot breaks out. Juan convinces Malamadre (Tosar), the convicts' leader, that he is a new inmate who has been beaten up by guards, and the two men become close as the crisis escalates.
This Spanish picture has such a high concept, it’s little wonder the Hollywood remake rights have been snapped up (by Paul Haggis), though it takes its situation further than most American thrillers would dare. It has the look of recent European tough-nut pictures like A Prophet, but is more in line with vintage John Carpenter in its suspense mechanics and the purest strain of film noir, as a hero’s desperate deception could as easily land him in the morgue as help him escape.
Of course, it all depends on contrivances: a crumbling ceiling, a moment of panic at the wrong time, complicated rivalries among the cons and the guards, a pregnant wife who rushes into trouble at the worst possible moment, near-slips as the game is perilously close to being given away, cops who act like crooks and criminals who show a streak of honour. In a specifically Spanish twist, the hostages at risk during the prison riot are a trio of Basque terrorists who’ve killed more people than the regular gangsters but who are bargaining chips with the regional government and to be protected at all costs.
The picture’s real guts is in the growing admiration between Malamadre (Luis Tosar), who turns out to be more than just the bullying top dog in the yard despite the tattoos and scary beard, and Juan (Alberto Ammann), who earns the nickname ‘Calzones’ for his daring and gradually comes to realise the convicts have a real case against the brutal administration he’s about to join. Writer-director Daniel Monzon, adapting a novel by Francisco Perez Gandul, follows the first rule of suspense and sinks the hero deeper and deeper in trouble as the film progresses, not only in terms of the increasing danger of being found out, but in the possibility that he’ll get so into his role as a violent prisoner that he’ll face serious charges even if he does get out alive. It’s arrant melodrama, of course, but it works: the pacing is terrific, and the plotting ingenious.
An outstanding thriller, with enough political and character strokes to lift it out of the straight genre category but rough and tough enough to stand alongside any given Hollywood hardman buddy vehicle. Tosars Malamadre is indeed the baddest mother se