Reviews don’t often require a spoiler alert in the first paragraph, but “The 33” is going to be a more suspenseful experience for those whose memories are short enough to have forgotten the gripping live coverage on CNN when 33 trapped miners were rescued from a collapsed gold and copper mine in Chile. That was only in 2010, after all, but already ancient history in the current media climate.
Director Patricia Riggen (“Girl in Progress”) gets down to business quickly. “The 33,” based on Hector Tobar’s nonfiction book about the Chilean mine disaster, “Deep Down Dark,” wastes little time in taking the audience into the mine, more than two thousand feet beneath the surface. This is not for the claustrophobic. There’s some obligatory foreshadowing that the century old mine isn’t safe – Lou Diamond Phillips plays a foreman with a conscience who warns management that the mountain is shifting, a scene that’s been played out in various forms in dozens of disaster movies.
The collapse itself is reenacted pretty much as soon as Phillips, Antonio Banderas as “Supermario” Sepúlveda and the rest of the 33 are below ground, and the special effects are unnervingly realistic. That, of course, wasn’t seen on TV, and Riggen and her VFX crew milk the sequence for all it’s worse.
What follows is a survival drama, and a riveting one. The characters below and above ground (Juliette Binoche and Cote de Pablo lead the group of wives, sisters and girlfriends who soon besiege the mining company) are shown alternately in flawed and heroic lights. Clearly we lean towards inspirational. Gabriel Byrne, James Brolin and Bob Gunton also appear amidst the pleasantly familiar faces.
“The 33,” well-written by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas, is a testament to the appeal of a big-budget feature that pits appealing actors against peril and disaster. This cast is also particularly gifted, and the performances are good. The men they’re playing were an interesting and mixed bunch, including an alcoholic lurching towards the DT’s and a miner whose wife and mistress both jockeying for position outside the gates of the mining company.
Certainly this is the best thing Banderas has done in years, and he’s never been more chiseled-looking than this. In fact, Riggen has laid herself open to some carping that the mine disaster is played heavily for beefcake value. Is it logical that these men would have been shirtless underground in 90 degree-plus temperatures? Certainly. That being said, some of these boys are looking a little too well-groomed and not significantly emaciated after days and weeks of deprivation.
The cinematography and locations are at least as impressive as the cast. The sense of place is palpable. “The 33” was shot on location in the mountainous Chilean desert and in actual mines. No fake paper maché rocks here – everything looks hard and heavy. Even before disaster strikes you have to have some sense of awe at the men who work here day in and day out.
There are moments where “The 33” pulls a little too hard on the heartstrings, and the comic relief interludes are not uniformly successful. But “The 33” tells its story as comprehensively as possible, in a reasonably lean and taut manner, and even manages to unearth a few details that weren’t on the news at the time. The ending is completely satisfying, and it’s likely that the next time you hold hold a copper penny, you’ll find yourself sparing a thought for the men who go into the Earth and dig.
“The 33” is now showing at theaters across the Capital District, including the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8, the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, the Spectrum 8 Theatre on Delaware Avenue in Albany and the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas 11 & BTX in Saratoga.