The Spanish Prisoner (1997) — Pulling a fast one on us all

“Funny old world? Dog my cats!”

Justin’s rating: Process THIS, baby!

Justin’s review: The other weekend I was enjoying some sort of viral infection in my meat shell, including a 100+ degree fever and a farm of phlegm. The nutty guy I am, I still went out and had dinner at a friend’s house, after which we went to rent a few videos.

They pulled The Spanish Prisoner from the shelves on a vague recommendation from me that “I heard someone say that their friend saw it and said it was good.” In my mind, this slow-looking film was catagorized as “I’ll Rent It When I’m Running A Fever And Can Hardly Concentrate On My Sinuses, Never Mind A Complex Film.” Yet God smiles, they sit down, I slump into a near-coma, and we watch this movie.

As I thought, the first 45 minutes or so of The Spanish Prisoner plod along like a really boring David Lynch flick. There’s this Joe guy (Campbell Scott) who creates a vague “Process” (we never learn what it’s for) that will make his company a considerable sum. Because of this, Joe attains a nice big fat bulls-eye on his chest, and we know something’s going to happen. There are a lot of shifty people he comes into contact with and a lot of visual clues along with plenty of those tasty red herrings. Finally, something does happen, and Joe struggles to figure out how he’s been conned and how to retrieve his lost fortune.

Since you know that this is a film in the “mindscrew” arena, from the start you’re cataloging clues even though the mystery even hasn’t taken place yet. Unlike Wild Things, The Spanish Prisoner doesn’t just twist the plot unexpectedly to throw you off. If you’re very careful and observant, you may be able to figure out the plot before Joe does. I didn’t, but then I’m out of college now.

Though slow, there’s enough to see while waiting for the action to make it worth your while. Joe is an unusual hero for these types of movies. He’s a genuinely nice person protecting his interests. As he’s pushed to breaking point, he never quite loses control of his senses (and thus, we’re given hope). The other characters in this play include his verbose and oversexed secretary Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon), a complex businessman named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin, who handles this character with a deft and subdued hand), and Joe’s friend George (Ricky Jay), who likes to quote people a lot. Visuals and music cues are equally well thought-out and put into the background so that you notice them, but they don’t demand your full attention.

Bottom line: this movie outsmarted me and I loved it. For us movie-plot-predicters, we are second-guessed long before we see this movie, and only the brave survive. It definitely demands more than one viewing.

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