Racing for the box office

Set in the world of illegal car races, ‘Combustión’ is a slickly commercial thriller

Álex González (left), Adriana Ugarte and Alberto Ammann in Combustión.
Álex González (left), Adriana Ugarte and Alberto Ammann in Combustión.

A romantic thriller set in the contrasting worlds of preppy society and illegal high-performance car races, Combustión is the kind of flagrantly commercial venture that would not normally be included in the Official Selection at the Málaga Film Festival.

But there’s no doubt it takes aim at the box office with elegance. Its plot centers on a love triangle composed of Mikel (Álex González), a young man set to be married to a jewelry heiress, and two chancers, Navas (Alberto Ammann) and Ari (Adriana Ugarte), who devote themselves to fleecing gullible rich kids thirsty for quick sex... which is what Mikel at first seems. After that, the movie starts to twist and turn, while director Daniel Calparsoro does what he knows best — puts the actors in the situation and elegantly shows the action — and everything stays on track.

In Málaga on Sunday Calparsoro explained how he got involved in the project, which he also co-wrote. “Paco Ramos, the producer, convinced me because of the fun elements of the film. Beyond the cars, it is basically a love story. It is also aimed at a female audience: we couldn’t rob viewers of the pleasure of his sculpted body,” he says, pointing at González.

Calparsoro is referring to the draw of the steamier scenes between the chiseled star and Ugarte. “Well,” replies González, “Dani has made the scene support the story, and that this moment arrives when they need to touch each other, to smell each other. And it is tastefully shot.”

The two male leads were also attracted by another challenge: the chance to film with high-performance cars. In the movie, Navas earns his living in illegal car racing while Mikel is a former driver. “We didn’t do anything illegal, I don’t even have a penalty point on my driving license,” says Ammann. “Even so, they gave us a one-day course in reckless driving so we would feel comfortable in a 200-horsepower car, which gives you prior respect for it.”

Another shrewd choice is the film’s powerful female lead character. “She flies the flag for women very high,” says Ugarte. “I don’t think it is a chauvinist film — she does what she wants, nobody forces her. Nobody messes around with her; it is more like the other way around. I think it is a portrait of a strong and intelligent woman. I had to fill myself with courage to play Ari: as a character, she is very conscious of what she does. [...] Of course she lives dangerously, but it’s she who puts herself in danger.”

Regarding the film’s commercial nature, Calparsoro has an admission to make. “I was surprised to see us competing in Málaga,” he says. “Just being here is a prize. Is it too commercial a film to be in competition? The box office will tell us. Of course, it is designed so the audience enjoys it and they get a rush.”

“We give commercial movies a derogatory label,” Ugarte chimes in. “If it were like that, it would be awful. Auteur cinema, on the other hand, it seems has to be drama — because what is fun is the same as what is commercial — that earns little at the box office and is profound. On the other hand, everyone wants to make money. But what is fun can also be profound, and what is commercial can have a signature.”

González, fresh from the flop that was Alacrán enamorado, rounds things off: “I have a responsibility as an actor at the box office,” he says. “The latest bit of bad news has been the collapse of [distributor and theater owner] Alta Films. If commercial means making money, I want to make more cinema like that. Combustión is aimed at a young audience we need to bring back to Spanish cinema. Sometimes that remark ‘it doesn’t look like a Spanish film’ is devastating. This is Spanish. And I hope it serves to give a bit of health to the patient.”

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