Below Zero (2021)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lluís Quílez’s “Below Zero” is about two fathers: one, who is a cop, with everything to lose and the other, a killer, with nothing else to lose. But you wouldn’t know this from the premise of the picture: a policeman on his first day assigned to aid a prison transport of six inmates. The armored truck will not reach its destination; the body count will be high. On the surface, it is an action picture with realistic violence and nifty twists. But dig deeper and realize it is about what drives a person to wake up in the morning, his reason for existence.
This is no action film that offers wall-to-wall ricocheting bullets, gratuitous explosions, and last-minute saves. You won’t find our hero hanging off a skyscraper or offering himself to the villain in place of a woman’s life. These expected decorations are brushed to the side in order to make room for consistently amplifying tension. It takes the time to unfold. We grow accustomed to the serious but determined face of our protagonist named Martín (Javier Gutiérrez). He may be short in stature, but he evokes an aura that he is a cop who plays it by the book. He honors the badge he wears.
We grow accustomed, too, to the prisoners about to be taken for a ride. Their ages range from mid-20s to early-60s. Some are in for thievery (Miquel Gelabert), others for drug addiction (Andrés Gertrúdix). One or two for murder. The youngest (Patrick Criado) claims he is imprisoned due to cops who failed to perform their jobs correctly. Some are fit and physically intimidating. A few appear to be weak but later proving to be quite cunning. The camera observes one of the convicts with a careful eye, as if to communicate that he expects something will go down during the transport (Florin Opritescu). Six inmates against four cops. Two cops in a police car that leads the way in the heavy fog, the other two hanging back in the armored truck: the driver—Martín—and the guard—Monstesinos (Isak Férriz)—who holds the keys to each temporary cell. Martín and Monstesinos do not get along but they must: they have a job to do.
I enjoyed that plenty is accomplished given that the majority of action sequences take place inside and around the armored truck. Credit to the detailed and creative screenplay by the director and Fernando Navarro, particularly in how alliances can change at a drop of a hat. Who appears to be most threatening one moment can be most useful the next; I appreciated that a few of the men in chains are given a dose of humanity, that their crimes are separate from who they are. And if it isn’t quite that black-and-white then perhaps their rehabilitation is working.
One of the prisoners dreams of opening his own business one day (Luis Callejo). The other hopes to be reunited with a family member (Édgar Vittorino). The way these characters are written inspires curiosity compared to mean-looking inmates wearing orange in most American mainstream blockbusters. I suppose the uniform is symbolic, both in terms of what they represent to American audiences and the writers’ minimal effort into creating characters who are destined to die anyway. Sometimes what we see in the movies is a reflection of who we are as a society.
Although “Below Zero” suffers from pacing issues about halfway through, it is never uninteresting. The antagonist is so monstrous in his actions—for instance, he is not afraid to burn people alive—that we crave to see him get his comeuppance. But when the final act rolls around, we wish for the violence to pause or stop completely because the situation, as well as the people caught up in it, is given more layers than we had anticipated.