tv review

On the High Seas or in Court, La Fortuna Works Best As a David-vs.-Goliath Story

Photo: Teresa Isasi/AMC

La Fortuna is not actually based on an airport novel, but there’s no shame in mistaking the new AMC+ miniseries for one. If the Lincoln Lawyer and Bosch author Michael Connelly were to secretly write fanfiction for the National Treasure universe, it might look a little something like this: conspiracies, middle-aged men yelling at one another about treasure-hunting, Stanley Tucci playing a villain who lies to his daughter and grins roguishly, location-hopping around Europe, and courtroom antics that rely on stolen documents from hackers and cleaning ladies alike. If you were to take a shot of thematically appropriate rum every time someone on La Fortuna insultingly calls someone else a “pirate,” the six-episode series, premiering tonight and airing weekly afterward, would knock you out flat within minutes. These are all compliments.

Since AMC+’s launch in June 2020, one of its primary methods of securing content has been picking up already aired, mostly European series for U.S. release. Some of those have been quite good, such as Gangs of London; some ambitious but uneven, such as Anna and Spy City; and some I watched but now cannot remember in the slightest, such as Too Close. The Spanish series La Fortuna, which aired last year in its country of origin, falls somewhere in between “quite good” and “ambitious but uneven” on that spectrum. Refreshingly cut-and-dried narratively but often corny in its dialogue and relationship dynamics, La Fortuna is not reinventing the wheel nor is it reinventing the courtroom-drama or thriller genres. It is a little too into bureaucracy, and its jokes at the expense of Americans are a little too obvious. We love air-conditioning and guns too much, don’t take climate change seriously, and our politicians are corrupt? Tell me something new, why don’t you!

Nevertheless, there is a kind of straightforward, throwback comfort to La Fortuna. A fair amount of that comes from Tucci, weaponizing his extra-dirty-negroni grin into smugness and condescension, and Clarke Peters, sliding comfortably into Lester Freamon mode (his character in this miniseries even lives in Baltimore). Each man’s easy charm serves a purpose, but Tucci gets to go first as explorer Frank Wild, whom La Fortuna introduces as a figure similar to Titanic’s Brock Lovett. Wild travels around the world with his devoted crew, including his adoring daughter, Amy (Indy Lewis), scouring seabeds for lost gold, silver, and other artifacts from hundreds of years ago. A massive discovery of 576,000 coins that Wild and his crew announce at a packed press conference sparks a surge in the stock price of his company, Atlantis Underwater Searching, making the American who humble-brags about following in the footsteps of explorers and archaeologists such as Matthew Henson and Howard Carter even richer.

Across the world in Spain, Wild’s news doesn’t land so well. At the Ministry of Culture, inexperienced but ambitious diplomatic adviser Álex Ventura (Álvaro Mel) and historical preservationist Lucía Vallarta (Ana Polvorosa) are convinced that Wild pulled that treasure out from La Fortuna, a Spanish ship that was returning colonists and their life’s earnings to their home country before it was sunk in 1804. When the British attacked La Fortuna, they resparked a war between the two countries, and the fortune was left at the bottom of the ocean. If Wild took it, Álex and Lucía reason, he succeeded in “plundering our heritage right under our fucking noses.” Once they team up with maritime-law specialist Jonas Pierce (Peters) to sue Wild and Atlantis Underwater Searching for the treasure’s return, La Fortuna follows years of battles in the courts of law and public opinion that pit this American company and the Spanish government against each other.

Filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) adapted the 2018 graphic novel El Tesoro del Cisne Negro, by Paco Roca and Guillermo Corral, with co-writer Alejandro Hernández and directed all six episodes, allowing for a consistency in messaging (a little nationalistic) and tone (a little earnest) that is supported by this story’s heroes and undermined by its villains. Viewers aren’t encouraged to consider what Spain would do with the hundreds of millions of dollars that the coins are worth but to just accept that the country as an idea supersedes individual interests in reality. The good guys are overworked civil servants and principled lawyers; the bad guys are mercenary defense contractors and wealthy underwater explorers, the latter of which is basically just the maritime version of the tech bro. This comparison crystallizes when Wild says he was “born to discover, like Indiana fucking Jones,” and kudos to Tucci for his commitment to that line and others like, “Do we really want to leave the treasure in the hands of those people?” His sneer really is quite convincing!

La Fortuna’s various subplots are unevenly compelling, and much of its person-to-person dialogue is hammy. (Did you know the Spaniards love that particular deli meat? The series tells us many times.) Mel’s wunderkind, Álex, essentially comes of age during this assignment, and the series painstakingly shows us the transformation of this tightly buttoned opera listener into a resourceful, aggressive, heavily cursing veteran of civil service. That’s nice for him, but Mel can’t quite hang with the more experienced actors in the ensemble, and centering his perspective is a bit of a misstep. Similarly ill-advised is the romance between Álex and the feisty Lucía, so telegraphed that revealing it barely qualifies as a spoiler. Compared with Wild’s deceitful posturing and Pierce’s unassailable righteousness, the romantic woes between two characters who would clearly work better as friends just don’t hold as much weight. At least the histrionics of Álex’s boss, Minister of Culture Enrique Moliner (Karra Elejalde) — whose main personality traits are complaining about government red tape and insisting “I’m a writer!” — add some scene-by-scene silliness.

While Amenábar and Hernández stumble a bit on person-to-person interactions in La Fortuna, they easily guide viewers through the contrasting motivations of each side and the various international laws with which they stock their arsenals. And lest all that jargon and statute-citing get too dense, Amenábar taps into the baked-in excitement of this story with well-placed action scenes that add some light tension. A flashback to the attack that sank the series’ titular ship provides useful context for Spain’s motivations, while a game of chicken on international waters communicates Wild’s recklessness. A convoy transport winks at the heist plotting of the Fast and the Furious franchise, with a comedic bent that cuts through the series’ heightened paranoia. There is no puzzle to solve in La Fortuna, no hidden messages, and that relative straightforwardness coupled with the actors’ clinic put on by Tucci and Peters is enough to make La Fortuna worth retrieving from the depths of streaming.

Treasure-Minded La Fortuna Excels in David-vs.-Goliath Mode