This endlessly entertaining Hitchcockian noir is nowhere near as glum as its put-upon protagonist, corrupt Bucharest cop Cristi (Vlad Ivanov). Middle-aged, drifting professionally and in up to his neck with ruthless European gangsters, he’s the stony-faced pillar around which its pacy plot and array of back-stabby machinations unfold. His disappointed mum thinks he’s making a mess of his life, and she’s far more right than she knows.
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s mordant skew on cops and crims was first showcased in 2009’s ‘Police, Adjective’. Here, he drops the introspection and amps up the entertainment, concocting something genuinely fresh from the familiar ingredients of the crime thriller. ‘The Whistlers’ is just enormous fun, brimming with nods to classic movies that could prove distracting, but only add icing to the cake. It keeps the twists coming at an outlandish rate too. Porumboiu flings in a few spy thriller tropes – dead drops, sports cars, dodgy disguises and shady motels – partly to cynically lampoon his homeland’s suffocating surveillance culture (even the police station is bugged) and partly because, heck, why not.
The title refers to a non-verbal language used by the inhabitants of La Gomera, a rocky outcrop in the Canaries, for communicating across its barren valleys. In an inspired ploy, a crew of calculating mobsters has seized on it as a means to avoid using easily tapped cell phones. Cristi, who’s been working all the angles and is now their patsy, must master it in order to free a money launderer, Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea) from jail and find a missing $30 million. There’s a ripe irony in his hapless early efforts: the whistle-blower struggling to whistle.
It’s also an inspired set-up for the film, bashing together arcane folk traditions and flashy crime movie in a way that’s blackly funny but played dead straight when it needs to be. There’s plenty of intrinsic tension – Porumboiu is careful to show his villains’ nasty side – especially in the fate of Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), a femme fatale who’s forever extricating herself from potentially fatal corners.
That namecheck to Rita Hayworth’s great survivor in ‘Gilda’ is probably no coincidence (and there’s a bit of grizzled Glenn Ford in Ivanov’s jaded cop too). ‘The Whistlers’ has a tonne of pulpy circuit-breakers – look out for a hilarious ‘Psycho’ tribute – to remind you not to take it all too seriously. Hitchcock would have approved.