Dir: Hugo Rodriguez. Mex-Arg-Sp. 2003. 90mins

Nicotina, the latest candidate for admission into the School of Tarantino, is an always perfectly watchable caper-movie-cum-romantic-comedy that is spasmodically entertaining. Filled with the fast wipes and purposely nonsensical discussions about ersatz philosophical issues like smoking and coincidence that mark the Tarantinesque genre, this film from Mexico, directed by Argentinian filmmaker Hugo Rodriguez, can, at times, be loads of fun.

We have indeed seen this kind of thing before, however, many times before - most recently in Guy Ritchie's Snatch - and while a breezy Spanish dialogue track will provoke interest among Latin American-based distributors, the possibility of worldwide distribution seems remote. One very strong selling point, however, is the presence of Latin star Diego Luna (Frida, Y Tu Mama Tambien), but he pretty much disappears after the movie reaches the 30-minute mark.

Luna plays Lolo, a computer hacker whose obsession with his beautiful, violin-playing next-door neighbour Andrea (Belaustegui) leads him to bug her apartment with hidden cameras and microphones. He's also involved in downloading Swiss bank information that will give him and his fellow felons access to some big money, and when Andrea discovers his cameras and mikes, she goes berserk, in the process mixing up his data discs.

From this basic premise, the film extrapolates into a visit to a pharmacy inhabited by a bickering married couple, one of whom is trying to quit smoking, and a barber shop also inhabited by a bickering married couple, one of whom, the woman, is a greedy bitch. Oh, the Russian Mafia and a bunch of diamonds also form crucial parts of this jam-packed plot.

A well-orchestrated comedy of errors ensues, and many audiences will find it exhilarating. By way of a grand finale, the film moves decisively into Grand Guignol territory, providing the gross-out payoff that viewers who have stuck with the film this far will be waiting for.

Nicotina is buoyed, here and there, by amusing little observations about human life, but ultimately Rodriguez is much more interested in pummeling us with high-octane technique from beginning to end. All telephone conversations are done in split screen, punctuated with perky wipes. Instead of close-up inserts on objects to which our attention needs to be drawn, the director offers mildly amusing high-tech cut-outs that recall similar shots in Pulp Fiction.

The music on the sound track pounds relentlessly, as is de rigueur for the genre. Perky musical accents rhyme cleverly with physical actions, convincing us that Rodriguez knows what he's doing.

A fitfully funny motif about smoking (a better version of which appears in Jim Jarmusch's hilarious last film, Cigarettes And Coffee) segues into a desultory conversation about fate versus free will and the prevalence of coincidence (that staple of contemporary cinema). But this theme is never seriously pursued nor cleverly developed in a way that can make Nicotina stand out from the pack.

Prod cos: Cacerola Films, Arca Difusion, Oberon Cinematografica, Fondo de Inversion y Estimulosal Cine, Videocine
Int'l sales: Altavista Films
Executive producers:
Monica Lozano, Laura Imperiale, Federico Gonzalez Compean, Eckehardt Von Damm
Producers: Laura Imperiale, Martha Sosa
Screenplay: Martin Salinas
Cinematographer: Marcelo Iaccarino
Editor: Alberto De Toro
Production design: Sandra Cabriada
Music: Fenando Corona Terrestre
Main cast: Diego Luna, Marta Belaustegui, Lucas Crespi, Jesus Ochoa, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Rosa Maria Bianchi, Carmen Madrid, Rafael Inclan