Unit 7 is a Spanish action film centered around the Seville World Expo. In the years leading up to the Expo, the local police were desperate to clean up the streets; the attention of the entire world would soon be upon them, and it was important their house appear to be in order. This opens the door for a small group of cops to bend the law to their own favor. Rather than arrest small-time drug users, they decide to become their suppliers, trading cocaine for information and building the trust of the locals. All goes as planned, and Unit 7 – a name handed to them by an excited press that has only heard whispers of their dealings – soon features the highest arrest rate in the entire city. However, living on the border between cop and criminal is a delicate thing, and soon each officer finds themselves giving into the temptation of this darker lifestyle and the target of both internal affairs and the remaining crime syndicates.
While Unit 7 bills itself primarily as an action film, the scope is relatively grand – it follows the cops over the course of several years and we are privy to both their rise and fall as a unit. We learn about each of the four police and their families – we are given details about their personal lives and see the dynamics between them and their loved ones. We also see their interactions with the inhabitants of the projects, and by montage, we are granted a view of how the people come to trust and cooperate with the cops in their midst. In this way, a lot of Unit 7 reminded me of the landmark third season of The Wire, which suggested that a cop could do better by containing and regulating the use of illegal narcotics than strictly enforcing the law. This is more of a subtext than the main point of the film; after all, the people eventually turn against the cops after they begin to abuse their power (both legally and illegally). However, it was a incredibly appealing idea within the world of The Wire, and I found the concept just as entertaining and thought-provoking in Unit 7.
Due to the length of time in the story, the movie does have some loose threads. I remember reading a comment on Twitter – associated with film critic Peter Guiterrez, I believe – that Unit 7 feels like a condensed season of a television show. I think this was intended as a compliment, but I thought it served as fair criticism. There is simply too much going on with the characters, too many interesting relationships and subtexts for all of them to work in the amount of time provided. I can understand the desire of the filmmakers to give every story line a place on the screen, but Unit 7 has a terrible habit of meandering and losing things along the way. An example – the film makes an early point of Angel (Mario Casas) struggling to keep his diabetes under control, but rather than becoming one of his defining characteristics, it only pops up here and there. For Unit 7 to have truly been a magnus opus along the lines of Goodfellas or Boogie Nights – films that also deal with the rise and fall of a group of morally gray characters – it should not have been afraid to trim some of the fat.
This is a complaint, but by no means a crippling one. For the most part, Unit 7 works and works well, both as an action film and and as a rise-and-fall story of a group of ambitious people. The action itself is not always claustrophobic, using the landscape of the city to great effect and giving us a chance to see how familiarity with the projects can be a hinderance to the cops. And the acting is top-notch. While the lead may be Casas, an international star, I found myself drawn to the quiet intensity of Antonio de la Torre as Rafael, a brutally violent man who learns to keep his anger and hostility in check. He is absolutely captivating on the screen while emoting very little. Ultimately, this film works as a strangely complimentary piece to the Tribeca Film Festival French film Sleepless Night – whereas the latter is narrowly focused and heavy on the action, Unit 7 is expansive and relies more on the characters. Both films have their flaws, but both should also stand out as highlights of the festival.