Dir. Agustin Diaz Yanes. Sp-US-Fr 2006. 145mins.

At first glance, big budget Hispanic feature Alatriste wouldseem destined for something of a critical fall, directed as it is by alittle-tested film-maker (at least in the way of epics) from several novels andfeaturing an English-language star speaking Spanish. But Agustin Diaz Yanes's $30.8m feature has much to recommend it, as ArturoPerez Reverte's swashbuckling 17th-century mercenaryCaptain Alatriste comes vibrantly alive in thiseminently watchable romp.

In Spain, profilefor Alatristehas been huge over the last few weeks and months, buoyed by audiencefamiliarity with the source material and climaxing with a star-studded Madridpremiere attended by the upper echelon of Spain's Socialist government (includingPresident Zapatero). Returns have reflected suchbuzz: the film opened on 447 screens on Sept 1, taking $5.9m and becoming thethird biggest opening ever for a homegrown feature in Spain.

It is also likelyto 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), CentralPartnership (Russia), Scanbox (Denmark) and HGCEntertainment (Hong Kong). Alatriste is slated to screen at Toronto (SpecialPresentations) next week.

In mid-17thcentury Spain, the power of the king's minister, the CondeDuque de Olivares (Javier Cámara)and the vast Hispanic empire is being eroded through constant wars in Flandersand France. After engaging in battle with the Flemish, swaggering and fiercewarrior Diego Alatriste (Mortensen), a somewhatcynical yet patriotic soldier of fortune, returns to Madrid and makes a modestincome as a hitman.

He is hired bythe Inquisition to kill two strangers arriving in the capital, aided by Malatesta (Lo Verso), a sinister Italian mercenary. But atthe last minute Alatriste spares the pairs' lives;later he learns that they are Prince Charles of Wales (Javier Mejia) and the Duke of Buckingham (QuimVila), royal envoys from London sent to arrange King Carlos' marriage to anEnglish pretender - something the Church in Spain wants to prevent.

To escape the webof intrigue, Alatriste returns to Flanders: here, inseveral well-executed and gritty action scenes, Diaz Yanespresents the harrowing aspects of 16th -century battle, as the Captain creepsthrough tunnels to mine an enemy outpost or deals with troop discontent.Passing love interest appears when the Alatristebecomes enamoured of a famous actress (Ariadna Gil), but a more permanent relationship is thwartedwhen the king himself takes an interest in her.

A subplotinvolves the young son, Inigo de Balboa (Unax Uglade) of a deadcomrade-in-arms who Alatriste promises to raise.Later the ward is arrested as a traitorous spy for the French and made to serveon a slave galley, although an appeal by the captain to de Olivares secures hisrelease.

Eventually Alatriste confronts Malatesta ina splendidly staged setpiece on the streets ofMadrid, before a climactic final battle between French and Spanish at Roctroi.

Alatriste makes for a lively and well-paced epicromp, and benefits from Yanes' inventive and gutsydirection. There is enough action and violence to bridge the more ponderousparts of the script, with the swordplay in particular outstanding in itsrealism and avoiding the blurry montage sequences seen in so much similar fare.The masterful opening sequences, as Alatriste and hisfollowers wade through the mist and water to gradually reveal the Flemish fortifications, set the dark mood for the subsequent action.

The frequent useof close-ups in taverns or battle scenes alternates effectively with longshots, 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 thatare fascinating in themselves and coalesce to a senseof historical verisimilitude, like how Alatristelaces up his boots in a special way.

Some of theintrigues are occasionally hard to follow, and matters are not helped by thenoticeably episodic story line, the result of cobbling together the hero'svarious adventures from four different novels. In one scene it appears that Alatriste has been mortally wounded, only to appear fullyrecovered in the next.

But battlesequences, sieges, mortar and infantry attacks effectively simulate themilitary methods of the age, although the producerscould have used more extras in the final well-filmed battle scenes (one longshot makes it look more like a skirmish).

New York-born Viggo Mortensen puts in a mesmerisingperformance as the swashbuckling hero, who enjoys carousing in low taverns withthe likes of the mordant Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo(Juan Echanove) as much as he does dispatching the foeon the battlefield. The American star delivers his own lines in CastilianSpanish, having lived as a child in Argentina and Venezuela, with a curiouslymore authentic accent than the slurred modern diction of the supporting cast(including Eduardo Noriego in a minor role).

Enrico Lo Verso plays Alatriste'schief adversary to wonderful effect and has a riveting presence on screen thatalmost equals Mortensen's. Strong support from the likes of Juan Echanove manages to paper over some of the more obvious cracks.

Topnotchcinematography creates a moody chiaroscuro Madrid of bedraggled streets thatevokes the city's poverty, violence and constant political intrigues. Severalof the shots are reminiscent of the great Spanish master painters of the era,although the narrative never dwells on such aesthetic winks but moves alongbriskly. In particular Velazquez's famous canvas Las Lanzas,which shows the surrender of the Flemish town of Bredato the Spaniards, with the lances of soldiers held high, is reproduced.

Authenticproduction design and period costumes add authenticity, more than complementingthe main action thrust of the piece. An alternately rousing and moodysoundtrack from Roque Banosoffers all-round enhancement.

Estudios Picasso
Origen PC
NBC Universal Global Networks

TF1 International

Hispano Fox

Antonio Cardenal
Alvaro Augustin

Agustin Diaz Yanes based on the novels of ArturoPerez-Reverte

Paco Femenia

Pepe Salcedo

Production design
Benjamin Fernandez

Roque Banos

Main cast
Viggo Mortensen
Elena Anaya
Javier Camara
Juan Echanove
Eduardo Noriega
Pilar Lopez de Ayala
Ariadna Gil