"Nicotina" is the viewing equivalent of taking a drag off a half-smoked cigarette that bears someone else's lipstick: While obviously not a unique or uniquely satisfying experience, the film still does the job in a pinch, and looks cool doing it. Directed by Hugo Rodriguez and written by Martin Salinas, this is a Mexican crime thriller that wears the influences of countless pop-culture-savvy, style-conscious filmmakers (spelled "Quentin Tarantino") on its rolled-up sleeve. It's a world of split-screen conversations, zoomed close-ups, darkly comic dialogue, and a Spanish-language rendition of the jazz chestnut "Fever" playing in the background. It's also a senselessly violent and bloody world, but then, you knew that.
Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") stars as Lolo, a creepy computer hacker who's using his technical expertise to stalk his neighbor (Marta Belaustegui) on the side. When Lolo is enlisted by fast-talking Nene (Lucas Crespi) to crack a Swiss bank's computer system in exchange for some diamonds from hairy Russian mobsters, the intertwining stories of several characters are laid out -- all to serve the common purpose of fueling a debate over whether life is about personal responsibility or predetermined fate. And at the center of that debate, the overt element that connects each of these characters is . . . raise your hand if you saw this coming more than half a pack back . . . smoking.
Twenty-three-year-old Nene is the most vocal, going on incessantly to another of his partners in crime (Jesus Ochoa) about the misunderstood cigarette and how "nobody dies before their time." Meanwhile a couple of bickering pharmacists (Carmen Madrid and Daniel Gimenez Cacho) lie to each other about kicking the nicotine habit, and a greedy hairdresser (Rosa Maria Bianchi) can't see the grotesque side of disemboweling a dead man who supposedly has diamonds in his stomach, let alone puffing on a butt that she's rescued from the bloody floor he's lying on. Lolo, the misunderstood one that we're supposed to have a soft spot for, literally has a hard time lighting up, but when he finally does, the film's many big-picture ideas explode all at once in a dramatic commentary that would be far more effective if its meaning wasn't so cloudy.
Salinas's script is mildly amusing, if sort of unmemorable and without the ultra-sharp wit of his filmmaking blueprints. Tight performances (by Luna and Crespi especially) help, and Rodriguez's fondness for busy editing gives you something to watch at all times.
The unfortunate thing is that by the time the credits roll, all those visual gymnastics also make a tempting parallel to the barking dog that randomly populates several scenes in this film without much of an explanation. They definitely get your attention, but part of you has to wonder what it was you missed that they were so fired up about.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by: Hugo Rodriguez
Written by: Martin Salinas; in Spanish with English subtitles.
Starring: Diego Luna, Lucas Crespi, Jesus Ochoa, Marta Belaustegui, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Rosa Maria Bianchi, Rafael Inclan, Carmen Madrid
At: Kendall Square, through Sept. 16
Running time: 93 minutes
Rated: R (graphic violence, language, brief nudity)