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Ifs, Ands, Butts 

Nicotina is about scratching that age-old itch -- inhaling, letting the warmth rush through you, saying a subconscious prayer that nothing's going to get screwy somewhere down the line. It's about deciding what you really want and then taking a chance, whether what you really want is good for you or not. The film that dominated the 2004 Mexican Ariel Awards and the MTV Mexico Movie Awards also happens to be about smoking.

Lighting up is definitely Nicotina's leitmotif of choice. Nearly all of the film's characters are either in the various throes of nicotine need or in the path of some poor soul who is. Computer hacker Lolo (Diego Luna) can wire his hot, unsuspecting neighbor's apartment with cameras and listening devices, but can't keep lighter fluid in his Zippo. His friend Nene (Lucas Crespi), a baby-faced small-time gangster wannabe, delivers a running lecture to his non-smoking partner-in-crime Tomson (Jesús Ochoa) on the benefits of the cigarette and the absurdity of worrying about cancer when everyone knows there could already be a bus out there somewhere with your name on it. Clara (Carmen Madrid) is a sweet shopgirl in a neighborhood pharmacy; as she prices items for sale, an unlit cigarette dangles from her lips. She explains to customer Nene that it helps stave off temptation -- her boss/husband Beto (Daniel Giménez Cacho) has quit smoking and banned it from the store. (Actually, his friends are smuggling cartons into the shop, and he's sneaking smokes in the shower.) And then there is Carmen (Rosa María Bianchi), who runs a struggling barber shop with her husband Goyo (Rafael Inclán); after she unsuccessfully tries to snatch payment for a haircut before her husband can pocket it, she bitterly complains that the business can't even support her habit.

But these characters do something more than smoke. They burn. None are the least bit happy with their current situation. All soon find themselves answering to that ultimate addiction (the elusive golden opportunity) and running the ultimate risk (the uncontrollable coincidence). Unluckily for all, the Russian mafia is in town, in the hulking form of the surly Svoboda (Norman Sotolongo). The Russian wants unauthorized access to other people's Swiss bank accounts and has diamonds to trade for the favor; his contact is Nene, who calls Lolo and cuts him in on the deal. But when Lolo can't quite concentrate on getting the job done correctly because he's distracted by the comings and goings of his dishy neighbor Andrea (Marta Belaustegui), he sets in motion a chain of events that eventually sees Nene wounded and on the run, Clara and Beto headed for the ultimate splitsville, the Russian dead in a barber's chair, and Carmen blossomed into a tonsorial Lady Macbeth.

Martin Salinas' screenplay weaves all of this together with the snap, crackle and pop of stylish dialogue, a sense of humor slightly akimbo and the kind of exposition-free character development that relies on simple gestures. The ensemble of actors works it, populating a Mexico City whose streets are painted with an irresistible sherbet-colored seediness by cinematographer Marcelo Iaccarino. As the aging haircutting couple, Inclán and Bianchi (Amores Perros) speak to each other with the comfortable cruelty of many years together. Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) plays the bumbling Lolo as an innocent pervert, a kind of mopey Mr. Magoo wandering through the chaos he's caused. If the film could be said to have any heart, it's provided by Madrid (Men With Guns) -- her Clara is sexy, smart and frustrated. She stiffens poutily when Beto tries to kiss her, and that's all we really need to know.

With a huge assist from the inventive editing of Alberto de Toro, director Hugo Rodriguez takes it from there, incorporating visual influences from all over the map (mostly Quentin Tarantino) and introducing a sense of pace that doesn't leave story in the dust. There's a moderate amount of split-screen action and a little forced refocusing of the audience's eye, but Rodriguez remains in complete control, pulling the audience right into the coolness of his movie instead of using it to shut them out. If Pulp Fiction and the truly excellent Kill Bill were Tarantino trying to prove that he's a genius filmmaker, Nicotina is just Rodriguez trying to prove that he's an ingenious filmmaker.

What Nicotina ends up as, then, is Tarantino 2.0 -- same crazy narrative energy, more good-natured glue to hold together all those wacky parts. Rodriguez's cinematic sensibilities are less promiscuous than his American progenitor's without being any less interesting. In a deceptively simple-looking feature film feat, Nicotina manages to successfully combine many of Pulp Fiction's more madcap, gimmick-driven tics with more conventional techniques (like, say, a recognizable, action-as-it-happens timeline and an economical screenplay where every single detail really counts). It's a highly rewarding, if far from revolutionary, approach. Nicotina isn't the next Tarantino bombshell -- not quite zanily creative enough -- but it is a leaner, sleeker version of the old model. And in some ways, that makes the Mexican caper film better. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

click to enlarge In Hugo Rodriguez's Nicotina, computer hacker Lolo (Diego Luna) can't quite commit to the crime.
  • In Hugo Rodriguez's Nicotina, computer hacker Lolo (Diego Luna) can't quite commit to the crime.
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