The Spanish action thriller Below Zero (Bajocero in Spanish) is an old-school, uncomplicated mix of suspense and violence that avoids too much focus on details or subtexts. The idea works in a way. You get taut drama that runs for little over a hundred minutes, mostly sticking to the singular intent of delivering thrills.
The tension starts pretty much with scene one, even as the opening credits begin. A man whose face we do not see is chasing a heavily wounded youngster down nowhere in dead of the night. The victim has clearly been tortured and can’t walk straight, the attacker wants information on the whereabouts of someone he simply refers to as “she”. The bloodied youngster insists he has no clue.
The sequence ends on an ominous, if predictable, note, laying backdrop for the film’s story to take off.
Quite simply, it isn’t much of a story. It doesn’t take you more than 10 minutes to realise that fact, as the drama starts with a prison transfer. A group of inmates are being moved from one jail to another in a state-of-the-art armoured truck, and driving the huge vehicle is officer Martin (Javier Gutierrez) in his first such assignment. Martin and his mission partner Montesinos have a police escort car showing them the way as the truck veers through a pitch dark highway, with zero visibility owing to dense fog and below zero degree temperature outside.
That’s also when Martin will lose contact with the escort car, naturally, even as his wireless refuses to catch proper signal.
The build-up is fastpaced in the opening portion, as a quick turn of events leaves Martin alone in the truck with a bunch of ruthless criminals who would not hesitate to kill him. But it does not take him long to realise bigger danger lurks outside the vehicle.
Director Lluis Quilez and his co-writer Fernando Navarro bank on storytelling rather than an original story idea, and they have done well to engage audience attention all through the narrative. As he struggles to work out a solution, Martin realises whoever is outside has murderous intent, and does not care much about the consequences of jeopardising a police operation.
The plot brings back to mind the 1997 Nicholas Cage-starrer Con-Air, though Below Zero takes the shape of a very different narrative. The film is also grittier and definitely gorier in parts. European cinema, even the outright mainstream variety as this one, often establishes the gist with a slowburn impact, and Below Zero sticks to norm. If you’re heavily fed on the Con-Air brand of sleek action, Below Zero could come across as a less frenzied job.
What director Quilez and company do manage, is set up a quiet sense of the sinister, as Martin and his jailbird bunch struggle for survival. Chaotic and compelling, the film thrives on the claustrophobic tension it sets up despite running on a formulaic track.
Below Zero | Spanish film – Cast: Javier Gutierrez, Alex Monner, Patrick Criado, Florin Oprițescu; Direction: Lluis Quilez
–ians, VINAYAK CHAKRAVORTY