(1993) Directed by Álex de la Iglesia; Written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría and Álex de la Iglesia; Starring: Antonio Resines, Álex Angulo, Frédérique Feder, Juan Viadas, Saturnino García and Fernando Guillén; Available on DVD
“You can conclude that I am some sort of sadist who mistreats his actors and his crew, and that is true. No, I’d like to say that I have also suffered a lot in this movie. And if you have the opportunity to see any sequence I was also shooting, I got hurt. We all had a great and an awful time and I think that is what it means to make a movie.” – Álex de la Iglesia (from DVD making of featurette)
Who says dystopian flicks have to be all gloom and doom? Álex de la Iglesia’s ambitious, audacious feature film debut manages to address the big issues without being heavy handed or preachy. Instead of hammering the concerns home with depressing settings and gloomy characters, he’s distilled the dystopian themes into a potent, lively brew. As a tonal starting point, he blends early Peter Jackson (think Bad Taste and Dead Alive), Robocop-era Paul Verhoeven and Terry Gilliam (especially Brazil and Time Bandits), with elements from Treasure of the Sierra Madre thrown into the mix for good measure. The finished product, however, is unmistakably de la Iglesia’s.
In the near future setting, perhaps a step or two away from our present, we’re introduced to an oligarchical society, run by big corporations and the wealthy. A militant group of disabled and deformed people, “Acción Mutante” (or “Mutant Action”), wage war against the wealthy, the beautiful, and anyone who strives for perfection. Their leader, Ramón Yarritu (Antonio Resines, in a standout comic performance), just released from a five-year prison sentence, meets up with his old gang to plan their next act of defiance (“Society treated us like shit, and now we’re gonna kick some ass!”). They target spoiled rich girl Patricia Orujo (Frédérique Feder), heiress to the Orujo Bakery fortune, for kidnapping at her wedding reception. After a botched operation, starting with a gunman hidden in a giant cake, they still manage to wreak chaos at the party and abduct their target. The gang, with Patricia in tow, escape in their rust-bucket spaceship Virgen del Carmen to the mining planet Axturias. Her father (Fernando Guillén) and new husband (Enrique San Francisco), aren’t about to take this sitting down, and pursue with their own army.
Ramón is a walking contradiction, as a fighter for the oppressed masses and a not-so-selfless seeker of personal gain. Greed gets the best of him as he imagines the perceived wealth from the ransom money, and he systematically eliminates his co-conspirators. One thing he didn’t count on was his hostage developing a strange affinity for her kidnapper (Ramon complains, “Not the Stockholm Syndrome again!”). After he removes the staples from her mouth, he wishes he’d left them in, as she launches into a diatribe of anti-establishment rhetoric (“It’s incredible how much the system can alienate you.”). By the end of the movie, they’re reduced to bickering like an old married couple.
Acción Mutante is packed with a series of inspired gags – I don’t want to spoil the fun by detailing them here, but the common denominator among them (a common de la Iglesia trait) is that things don’t go as planned, starting with the wedding cake. After Ramón kills Alex’s (Álex Angulo) conjoined twin Juan (Juan Viadas), Alex is forced to amble about, attached to his brother’s stuffed corpse. Each situation builds on the next, leading up to a final irony-drenched scene. No exploration of the film would be complete without mentioning the awful, absurd costume design by Estíbaliz Markiegi and Lena Mossum. Some highlights are the avant-garde fashions worn by snooty party-goers, Patricia’s father’s Nazi-like uniform (including an Orujo Bakeries arm band), and a TV news reporter’s suit that resembles a bunch of rocks (to match the miners’ bar on Axturias, the setting for the climactic ransom exchange).
Álex de la Iglesia has a strong following from a dedicated group of fans, yet he remains a best-kept secret of sorts to most American audiences. He’s made arguably better, more polished films since Acción Mutante (such as with El Crimen Ferpecto – that’s not a typo, 800 Bullets and The Last Circus), but this remains a solid introduction to his movies and skewed sensibilities. Acción Mutante isn’t afraid to address some serious topics, depicting marginalized members of society fighting against inequities, class division between rich and poor, and how money (or the promise of it) corrupts. Somehow, de la Iglesia manages to inject his commentary on social ills, and we can still keep a smile on our collective faces. Warning: You might have to dig to find the film* (I found my Region 2 DVD through an independent seller on Amazon UK), but it’s well worth endeavoring to beg, borrow or steal** a copy.
* According to a 2005 interview, one reason for the disc’s relative scarcity may be that the filmmakers didn’t have the rights to the Mission Impossible theme, which figures prominently in one scene.
** The writer assumes no liability for anyone who chooses this third option.