Reviews Too Late: Money Heist

by wjw on October 24, 2019

iu-5While recovering from surgery I binged, mainly continuing my exploration of Spanish TV with Money Heist (Casa de Papel, “House of Paper”)  I do like an intricate caper, as my Maijstral books demonstrate, and this is probably the longest caper ever filmed, something like sixteen hours of television originally split into two seasons.  (One crime over two seasons!)  The series was one of the most-watched in Europe last summer, which attracted the interest of Netflix.  When Netflix acquired the series it was re-edited into 22 episodes, and two more seasons were filmed.  (I’m halfway through Season Three, and Season Four has yet to be released.)

So, whatta we got here?  Master criminal El Professor (Álvaro Morte) recruits a group of criminal specialists to take over the Spanish mint, run off a couple billion euros over a week’s time, and cleverly vanish along with the cash.  To preserve anonymity, each of the team adopts the pseudonym of a city, and the tale is narrated by Tokyo, a young woman with a history of robbing banks, and who recently watched her boyfriend gunned down when a heist she planned went terribly wrong.  Tokyo isn’t an unreliable narrator, exactly, but she’s an unreliable human being, prone to making an impulsive grand gesture at exactly the wrong moment.

And in fact El Professor turns out to have made quite a number of mistakes in casting his crime.  Except for a couple beefy gay Serbian goons hired to keep order, the rest of the cast are histrionic, narcissistic Latins, prone to tossing the Professor’s intricate plan out the window just because, well, they’re extremely passionate and not very bright and not very good at working out consequences.  In other words, they behave like stereotypical Spaniards, except for the second-in-command Berlin, the Professor’s brother, who is logical and disciplined, and also a sociopath and a rapist.

By the end of the caper, I’m guessing the Professor was regretting not hiring stereotypical Germans for the job.

(The gay Serbian goons are not stereotypical, so far as I can tell.)

The crooks storm the mint disguised as cops, and then adopt their primary costume of fire-engine-red jumpsuits and Dalí masks.  They’ve captured 60-odd hostages, including a school group that includes the daughter of the British ambassador, which pretty much guarantees that the authorities aren’t going to storm the building in a blaze of gunfire, particularly as the hostages are dressed in the same jumpsuits and masks as the hostage-takers, and are equipped with dummy guns.

A caper that goes exactly right isn’t very interesting, and this caper goes spectacularly wrong in so many spectacular ways.  The crooks aren’t supposed to form relationships and have sex with one another, but they do.  They’re not supposed to form relationships and have sex with the hostages, but they do.  (One of the hostages joins the robbers and adopts the name “Stockholm,” which you have to admit is pretty funny.)  The crooks aren’t supposed to mutiny and force Berlin to play Russian roulette with himself, but they do.  The Professor isn’t supposed to fall in love with Raquel, the police inspector assigned to the case, but he does, and Raquel isn’t supposed to fall in love with a crook, but she does.

The cops aren’t without their own drama.  Raquel has just ended an abusive marriage and put out a restraining order on her ex, who is another cop and a genius forensics guy.  The cops line up behind the ex, except for the one detective who’s in love with Raquel and follows her around like a puppy dog.  There’s a spooky Homeland Security type who keeps trying to take over and send in the tanks, because he’s no more stable than the robbers.

The story leaps back and forth in time, providing backstory for the characters and building the team’s relationships, and the choppy editing style echoes the narrator Tokyo’s own emotional instability.  The production is styled brilliantly, from the Dalí masks to Tokyo’s resemblance to a grown-up Natalie Portman from The Professional.

The plot is intricate and generates genuine suspense, and the soap opera elements, while overplayed, keep the momentum rollicking right along.  Some of the performances were outstanding, especially that of Pedro Alonso as Berlin, the intelligent, manipulative, dramatic sociopath.

I have to say that I enjoyed it all the way through.

The series is less successful when it pretends to political seriousness.  The crooks pretend to be revolutionaries and Robin Hoods in order to get the public on their side, but the series seems to want us to take that notion at least a little seriously, from the signature red costumes to the repeated use of the anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao,” which you may translate either as “Pretty Hello” or “Goodbye, Beautiful.”  (The lyrics are romantic dreck but the tune is stirring.  I’ve had it running through my head for days.  Here’s Yves Montand’s version.)

But the crooks aren’t revolutionaries or Robin Hoods.  They’re professional criminals.  They’re not going to give the money to the poor or use it to finance a revolution, they’re going to keep the money and live happily ever after, at least until Tokyo gets restless and does something impulsive and dumb.

(When we see the surviving robbers in Season Three, none of them seem to be living large or enjoying the money they risked so much to steal.  They’re living simply in tropical locations.  If you’re going to live in a grass hut, why do you need billions of euros?)

Season Three, I have to say, is less successful (so far).  Netflix needed to get the Merrie Men back together, so Tokyo does something dumb and impulsive, which gets one of the other members of the gang arrested and thrown into the Spanish version of Guantanamo, complete with a pregnant police detective as chief torturer.  This means the rest of the team has to assemble to perpetrate another huge crime, this time the occupation of the Bank of Spain, complete with a sub-basement filled with 42 metric tonnes of gold.  (The sub-basement floods when the doors are tampered with, so there are beautiful scenes of scuba divers floating through a room filled with gleaming gold bars.)

This caper is more spectacular than the last, but by now the team has billions of Euros to spend on advanced tech, like full-sized radio-controlled zeppelins to bomb Madrid with stacks of money, and a foundry capable of melting down 42 tonnes of gold.  The best part is that they use low tech when appropriate— they communicate using second-generation cell phones, which have no GPS, and by using WWII portable radios designed for SOE, dumb gear that can’t be cracked by modern equipment, either.  (The series doesn’t mention you have to swap out the radio crystals every 10 minutes.)

By Season Three you can sort of anticipate the caper’s beats, and the soap opera is growing repetitive.  But I found the first two seasons irresistible, and I recommend them to anyone who enjoys elaborate, stylish crime drama that you don’t have to take too seriously.

I rate it four-and-a-half melted watches.

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