Monday, April 9, 2012

Mandrill Review - Cool, Odd, Fun

This month is the blog's 3rd anniversary, and March had no reviews, so I'm posting 3 per week for the rest of April, starting with Mandrill. Such is the power of blog boredom.

This is the third collaboration between actor Marko Zaror and writer/director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza. These two Chileans are restoring my child-like glee for action films, and I'm so happy that Netflix now streams all three. I should've photographed the smile on my face when I realized my long wait for this 2009 foreign release was over.

Do you know how much I love their movies? I'll still eventually buy the two I've already reviewed - Kiltro and Mirageman - even though I can Watch (Them) Instantly. This third entry is a little less likely to get that treatment, but it's a high standard.

Mandrill is one of the most flexible movies I've seen in a while, especially in terms of tone. The plot is a grindhouse throwback, and there's a strong tongue-in-cheek sensibility here, like in Black Dynamite. Even the opening titles are in this sweet 70's/80's font (from GTA III, I think). The action is also sudden and intense, at times feeling like one of the grittier 70's actioners, maybe Get Carter.

In any case, you don't need more than 15 minutes to see how Marko Zaror is a rare find. This real-life martial artist just blows away the new James Bond, Bourne, Mission Impossible, whatever "one-man operative" movie US studios put into theaters. He has the acting skill and charisma to sell his roles, and this makes him very special.

I don't want to spoil these scenes, but I must convince you to watch this!

"Mandrill" - yes, that's the lead's name - is an international super-spy for hire. The movie follows him on some professional assignments and one deeply-personal mission. Flashbacks flesh out his origin, very much like that of Lucy Liu's character in Kill Bill. These interludes are great in establishing the underlying themes of Mandrill.

They also serve to distinguish this movie and set its tone. After certain moments, the screen freezes and becomes like a cheap surveillance camera version of the image you just saw. This not only serves as a pause in between scenes, it suggests that the whole movie is a sort of game, like Rockstar's Manhunt.

Yes, the transitions are similar.

I can make a good guess at their meaning, yet the camera tricks are less confusing than the scores: Rotten Tomatoes has no pro reviews, only giving it a 57% (59 ratings). IMDb rates it a 5.9/10 (150 scores), and Netflix's average score is 2.4/5 (1800 reviewers). Mandrill doesn't even show up on Metacritic.

Even assuming most of those reviewers don't like Spanish-language flicks, I'm thrown off by the response. The opening lays out our anti-hero, a soft-spoken moving mountain that uses brute force or raw charm. Anyone can die at any time. It's all so fitting to the era and genre. The picture starts with a band, never really letting up.

Bond girls cut no slack for leaving the lid up.
The mixed reviews might be the result of expectations. For a film in this style, I guess viewers want more sex and violence - maybe not poignant flashbacks or the deep, long stare that our protagonist is frequently forced to take at his life. But the "international assassin... of love" scenes aren't badly done, there's only two of them. Wall-to-wall fights might be great, but the brawls already in it are so good.

And tho our protagonist-hitman only takes life when he needs to, he's merciless when he does it. The violence is perfectly satisfying, and if some folks want to see more T&A in this picture, they'd have to ask themselves what kind of sex life is a guy is likely to have when he saw his mother murdered and became a top hired gun? Probably not anything you'd want to see, folks...

Among other things, the film looks at the basic lame-ness of being a person who's based his life on a movie character. It also addresses the problems in being set on revenge. Or asking for forgiveness when you've just killed someone's closest relative. Mandrill gives us a glimpse into what the 007 series could've become.

Little jokes pepper this smart film as it moves from scene to scene. One major highlight, through, is Colt, the James Bond of the make-believe world we're watching as an audience. How can I not love an imaginary movie with an actor called Alpak Shino? Or a vest-wearing tough guy who falls into every classic super-hero trap ever?

The point made by the Colt scenes, and the lead's flashbacks, is that this is all childish fantasy. Wanting to be James Bond, seduce women at will, or take revenge on a murderer - these sorts of ideas creep into people's minds and ruin their lives. If you live a life based on "what you've seen" in popular culture, you're not just standing on shaky ground - you've exchanged something special for a common video game.

To hell with the general reviews; I chose to believe that people simply didn't understand what to expect from this film. It looks like a simple 70's action throwback, but has the heart of a modern take on the genre and subject.

Maybe I'm more entranced by the neat retro-spy music than most people. It's as cool as what's in No One Lives Forever, and reminds me of the score for The Incredibles; it's all electric guitar twangs and brass stings. Or maybe I'm blown away by the amazing fights. Or maybe I can see this movie in a different way.

Folks expecting a Hollywood movie would demand a clear ending that shows whether the hero survives, with every enemy defeated. A Hollywood movie would end on a kiss, or a villain being blown up. Or, again, maybe he should get into bigger fights, kill random bystanders, or have more sex.

None of these things happen here. It's possible that their is one bad guy who's responsible for everything that's happened - but this is suggested, not actually shown. Maybe some mistook this kind of certainty for bad story-telling.

Mandrill deserves more credit than it got, because it's obviously smart and it deserves to be understood, not scanned for flaws. Zaror and Espinoza remain a great combination. Their third movie isn't quite as flat-out good as the their other work, it's still great, still well worth watching, thinking about, and recommending.

Watch all their work, and tell your friends!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Chime in!