Friday, March 26, 2010

"Mirageman" a low-budget, Chilean super-hero story shames Hollywood to do better

I reviewed "Kiltro" back in September. I talked then about martial arts god Marko Zaror and Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, a Chilean writer/director of some skill. In short, "Mirageman" is a realistic, spanish-language "The Dark Knight," so lightning struck twice.

Espinoza found a muse in his friend Zaror. Together, the two now produce entertaining and engaging action films that tell great stories. The original AICN article - differences of opinion aside, I owe the author thanks - covered "Kiltro" when "Mirageman" premiered. That review enthusiastically praised both films, claiming that the later film was even better than the former. And now I feel so happy that Netflix finally snagged "MM" in October '09. The lapse of time is getting better, too... "Mandrill," the 3rd collaboration, received Fantastic Fest's "Best Picture" award that same month. Maybe I'll be able to see their 5th feature in some multi-nation, simultaneous release. I can only hope that studios see the potential here.

In so many ways, "Mirageman" is a high-quality Spanish version of "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight." It's shocking to think that a Chilean unknown beat the great Christopher Nolan to the punch by a full year. Shall I explain? Maco (Zaror) is a man, presented at first as an exercise enthusiast. The man's regimine rivals that of "Rocky" quiet easily. Yet in all his discipline, it is clear that our protagonist is full of passion.

Through a brief sequence, we understand his life. Maco is a bouncer at a popular night-spot. His boss derides his occasional late appearance. His nasty superior explains that striving to be an MMA champ means nothing because guns end fights so quickly. But Maco has more to worry about than drunks, because his little brother is a quasi-catatonic shut-in. That poor boy has been in a psych ward since a childhood disaster: he was raped, their parents were murdered, and his big bro was viciously beaten. It's no wonder our hero spends his nights running through the streets, shadow-boxing to blow off steam.

In one of these moments of release, he comes across a masked man loading gear into a car. It takes less than a second to knock the man out. Taking the thief's ski-mask, he enters the house - and sees downed men, as well as two trapped ladies. One of them is on top of the dining table, and she's probably going to be raped.

And the man does what comes naturally. He beats the two remaining criminals senseless and frees the table-bound damsel.  He runs to where he can pull the cloth off his face, and we see the wheels turning behind Maco's eyes. Chance has given a direction to his energy and will.

The real joy in a movie like this is seeing how well the story's told with a fraction of a Hollywood budget. Nice overhead shots - perhaps from nearby rooftops - track the protag as he browses downtown shops. He tries on several bits of clothing, and it's no surprise to see what happens next: a montage of the various outfits made by combining his purchases. Oh, the montages in this film! Only the "South Park" creators are as skilled in them, or as funny.

Consequences also play a big part here, and we're quickly introduced to the first result of his heroics: That damsel was a lovely young news anchor. Carol has herself become the story, and she soon makes a broadcast, stridently thanking the miraculous man who saved her life. The public is modestly interested, and she shares in the spotlight.

Throughout, the tone is both familiar and new. Maco is not a well-polished billionaire genius. He's a supremely well-meaning average bloke with a body straight out of Greek myth. His heart is the only thing that rivals his physical condition, but he's not the sharpest tool in the shed. It's quite a lot of fun to see a good man tackle a massive problem in the simplest way possible.

After deciding on an outfit that suits him (but is literally laughable to his enemies), he begins to patrol the streets. He also finds the reporter's email address, leaving an open offer to help anyone in danger. Anyone under 60 can easily imagine what happens when his email is read aloud to the public...

The movie is quite post-post-modern. While his tragic origin and early "growing pains" reflect Nolan and Bale's first success, portraying society's reaction to his existence is what steals "TDK"'s thunder. "Mirageman" deals quite urgently with gauging the subject's effect on the public. Newspapers track the extent of the sensation around his existence, and flesh out the reporter's intentions (but you'll need to know Spanish to get all the headlines). Still, we're shown a lot TV-style camerawork that's appropriate to foreign tv. If you've ever seen the local news in Europe or South America, you'll know that they nail it. It's also one of the things that adds a great realism to the film.

It's a lot of fun to watch the interviews of the people Mirageman protects. Some deride Chile's newest hero (convincingly, too). Other folks desperately want his attention (to fulfill absurd fantasties). We also see what happens when a motivated modern woman (that pesky reporter) has "the story of a lifetime" fall into her lap. This very self-aware film accounts for how a modern hero would be received in a major city during the internet age. But desperate ploys for popularity aren't what make our hero tick - he just wants to do the most good that he can.

"Real" is not an absurd thing to say because Maco doesn't heal in seconds or fly or kill with a thought. We see a highly-skilled martial artist who thinks that he can make a serious difference in the war on crime. His goal is as simple as keeping people from getting robbed or hurt. If this sort of thing really happened, cracking skulls in the name of justice would probably appeal to a damaged individual whose personal demons almost required this.

So it's very appropriate that his major endeavor begins with a blue screen and the words, "Mission 1: Maco versus ..." Anyone who does this sort of thing is, essentially, living a video game. As with most such games (there must be an 80's arcade influence), there's a sense of progression as the hero goes through his battles. In arcades as in real life, there's the chance of a "mission failed" sign, as well as "mission complete."

I do not know if Marko Zaror ever trained at acting - at anything but martial arts, really. I know that he's  carried two whole movies perfectly. That isn't something I can say for several well-paid British and American actors. Whether he tries to impress some hoodlums by jumping 15 feet (then limping for seconds), or runs through a complex kicking ass (but never thinking about what he's walked into), Zaror has a compelling on-screen presence.

The director is a genius in creating a real-life, story-driven, super-hero masterpiece. He's also great in the angles he chooses for his shots. He's hilarious in the way that he jumps from our hero at his most impressive to our hero at his most embarrassingly human. If that last sentence makes no sense, ask yourself this question: what does Christian Bale's Batman do when he's prowling Gotham's rooftops and sneezes in his mask? He's wearing a huge rubber suit! If Mirageman had chosen a more complicated outfit, we'd probably see the silly reality behind one person's lofty dream.

There is no promise of a perfect ending in this sort of story. There is no aburdly-complicated plot with a broad mythology of villains who hide or seek revenge. No time is wasted in trying to make a franchise here. You get a real (but highly-skilled) man, and the sorts of problems arising when he tries to tell his town: If you're in danger, I'm here to help. The fact that I got to split my time between learning new Spanish slang and reading subtitles was just the icing on the cake. For the love of heaven, rent this movie and enjoy! No fancy special effects or big-name cameos will distract you from a brilliantly thought-out, passionate tale.

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