At first glance, big budget Hispanic feature Alatriste would seem destined for something of a critical fall, directed as it is by a little-tested film-maker (at least in the way of epics) from several novels and featuring an English-language star speaking Spanish. But Agustin Diaz Yanes's $30.8m feature has much to recommend it, as Arturo Perez Reverte's swashbuckling 17th-century mercenary Captain Alatriste comes vibrantly alive in this eminently watchable romp.
In Spain, profile for Alatriste has been huge over the last few weeks and months, buoyed by audience familiarity with the source material and climaxing with a star-studded Madrid premiere attended by the upper echelon of Spain's Socialist government (including President Zapatero). Returns have reflected such buzz: the film opened on 447 screens on Sept 1, taking $5.9m and becoming the third biggest opening ever for a homegrown feature in Spain.
It is also likely to enjoy traction overseas, thanks to its battle scenes and a strong lead in Viggo Mortensen, selling well to, among others, Pro Sieben Sat1 (Germany), Italia Film (Italy), Central Partnership (Russia), Scanbox (Denmark) and HGC Entertainment (Hong Kong). Alatriste is slated to screen at Toronto (Special Presentations) next week.
In mid-17th century Spain, the power of the king's minister, the Conde Duque de Olivares (Javier Camara) and the vast Hispanic empire is being eroded through constant wars in Flanders and France. After engaging in battle with the Flemish, swaggering and fierce warrior Diego Alatriste (Mortensen), a somewhat cynical yet patriotic soldier of fortune, returns to Madrid and makes a modest income as a hitman.
He is hired by the Inquisition to kill two strangers arriving in the capital, aided by Malatesta (Lo Verso), a sinister Italian mercenary. But at the last minute Alatriste spares the pairs' lives; later he learns that they are Prince Charles of Wales (Javier Mejia) and the Duke of Buckingham (Quim Vila), royal envoys from London sent to arrange King Carlos' marriage to an English pretender - something the Church in Spain wants to prevent.
To escape the web of intrigue, Alatriste returns to Flanders: here, in several well-executed and gritty action scenes, Diaz Yanes presents the harrowing aspects of 16th -century battle, as the Captain creeps through tunnels to mine an enemy outpost or deals with troop discontent. Passing love interest appears when the Alatriste becomes enamoured of a famous actress (Ariadna Gil), but a more permanent relationship is thwarted when the king himself takes an interest in her.
A subplot involves the young son, Inigo de Balboa (Unax Uglade) of a dead comrade-in-arms who Alatriste promises to raise. Later the ward is arrested as a traitorous spy for the French and made to serve on a slave galley, although an appeal by the captain to de Olivares secures his release.
Eventually Alatriste confronts Malatesta in a splendidly staged setpiece on the streets of Madrid, before a climactic final battle between French and Spanish at Roctroi.
Alatriste makes for a lively and well-paced epic romp, and benefits from Yanes' inventive and gutsy direction. There is enough action and violence to bridge the more ponderous parts of the script, with the swordplay in particular outstanding in its realism and avoiding the blurry montage sequences seen in so much similar fare. The masterful opening sequences, as Alatriste and his followers wade through the mist and water to gradually reveal the Flemish fortifications, set the dark mood for the subsequent action.
The frequent use of close-ups in taverns or battle scenes alternates effectively with long shots, such as one on the beach after Balboa swims ashore from the slave galley, affording enough space for the audience to catch their breath.
Yanes also dwells on many simple details that are fascinating in themselves and coalesce to a sense of historical verisimilitude, like how Alatriste laces up his boots in a special way.
Some of the intrigues are occasionally hard to follow, and matters are not helped by the noticeably episodic story line, the result of cobbling together the hero's various adventures from four different novels. In one scene it appears that Alatriste has been mortally wounded, only to appear fully recovered in the next.
But battle sequences, sieges, mortar and infantry attacks effectively simulate the military methods of the age, although the producers could have used more extras in the final well-filmed battle scenes (one long shot makes it look more like a skirmish).
New York-born Viggo Mortensen puts in a mesmerising performance as the swashbuckling hero, who enjoys carousing in low taverns with the likes of the mordant Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo (Juan Echanove) as much as he does dispatching the foe on the battlefield. The American star delivers his own lines in Castilian Spanish, having lived as a child in Argentina and Venezuela, with a curiously more authentic accent than the slurred modern diction of the supporting cast (including Eduardo Noriego in a minor role).
Enrico Lo Verso plays Alatriste's chief adversary to wonderful effect and has a riveting presence on screen that almost equals Mortensen's. Strong support from the likes of Juan Echanove manages to paper over some of the more obvious cracks.
Topnotch cinematography creates a moody chiaroscuro Madrid of bedraggled streets that evokes the city's poverty, violence and constant political intrigues. Several of the shots are reminiscent of the great Spanish master painters of the era, although the narrative never dwells on such aesthetic winks but moves along briskly. In particular Velazquez's famous canvas Las Lanzas, which shows the surrender of the Flemish town of Breda to the Spaniards, with the lances of soldiers held high, is reproduced.
Authentic production design and period costumes add authenticity, more than complementing the main action thrust of the piece. An alternately rousing and moody soundtrack from Roque Banos offers all-round enhancement.