Review: Below Zero By Lluís Quílez
Martin (Javier Gutierrez) is a National Police Corps officer transferring into a new precinct. His first assignment? Driving an armored prisoner transport rig along with his new partner, Montesinos. It’s nighttime, and it’s cold, but you gotta do what you gotta do, and Martin settles into the cab for the long drive out to the sticks, with Montesinos in the observation area in back and each prisoner locked in an individual compartment. It doesn’t take long for the operation to go south.
As fog sets in on the desolate highway through thick woods, Martin loses visibility of the lead patrol car. Road spikes glint in the rig’s headlights, and before he knows it, the rig is disabled. It only gets worse when Montesinos climbs out to investigate and is never heard from again. The prisoners are getting rowdy in their compartment cells, and one man, Ramis, has already been shown to have a means of escaping his box. Did he plan this attack? Martin is in the dark and on his own, and now he’s getting shot at. How’s that for a first day on the job?
Below Zero steadily builds tension as the commandeered prison van picks up speed, and the plot introduces and dismisses each prisoner’s potential motives for the attack. And when the rig interior is assailed with gasoline piped in from above, and has the heat cut off on this bitterly cold night, it’s clear that whoever attacked them is not afraid to kill any of them. Martin, forced to work with the remaining jailbirds at finding an exit or a means of turning the tables in their favor, discovers that there is at least some honor amongst thieves, even if he also learns how amoral other men can be, and finally, how far some will go to avenge a wrongful death.
Performance Worth Watching: Luis Callejo is terrific as Ramis, the career small-timer who had his own plan to escape the prison transfer before it was even attacked, complete with a homemade lock pick that he concealed in the only place the cops weren’t going to search. Caught up in the chaos of the assault on the rig, Ramis uses his wits to search out an escape. It also turns out he was also in the flamenco band that played at Martin’s wedding. “My uncle taught me to play guitar,” he tells the group with a resigned grin. “But I was better at picking locks. What can I say? Only crooks and artists lead interesting lives.”
Memorable Dialogue: It’s a mess inside the prison rig. The men are at each other’s throats. Confusion reigns. No one knows who planned this attack, or at least no one is admitting involvement. And then the intercom radio crackles. “Nano. I told you we’d meet again.” And the kid goes green with fear, his tough guy neck tattoos seeming to shrivel up in terror.
Taking place almost entirely across the murky stretch of one cold night, Below Zero builds a strong sense of foreboding from the beginning. Six prisoners, each one mouthy but in his own way. Two police officers on board, one who has admitted to scoffing at the rulebook. Who among these disparate personalities has someone on the outside willing to try and knock over a prison transport rig? The early narrative feints are executed efficiently. Is it the Romanian crime boss? What about Montecito, the jaded cop with the sly smile? Or Ramis, with his secret lock pick tool? It’s a matter of when the van is hit, not if, and even after the attack, Below Zero still manages to make the tension ping off the walls of the tight, uncomfortable space in the back of the prison rig.
Once the attacker’s target on board is revealed, the tension mutates again. Cop or criminal, each man is locked in a cage with cages of its own that’s literally being driven down the road by a madman who has already proved to be a killer. And when all of their moves are spent, and the sun has come up, the attacker still has one final terror left to flush out his prey. It’s about to get a lot colder and a lot wetter in there. With its white-knuckle sense of atmosphere and ever-dwindling list of who’s still breathing, Below Zero builds to its climax with a bead drawn on desperation.