REEL ACTION: Ernesto Diaz Espinoza's Mandrill (2009)

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Directed by: Ernesto Diaz Espinoza
Starring: Marko Zaror, Celine Reymond, Alejandro Castillo and Luis Alarcon

THE PLAN: Elite bounty hunter Antonio (Code name: Mandrill) is the best in the business, a suave killer who can't be beat. Underneath the cool exterior, however, pumps a wounded heart that yearns for revenge: Mandrill is always on the lookout for the man who killed his parents, and won't rest until he finds him... When his latest job seems to lead him in that man's direction, Mandrill suddenly finds himself in conflict after he meets a beautiful woman - who just happens to be his target's daughter.

THE KILL: MANDRILL is a truly unexpected surprise, a fun, stylish, self-aware action film that's both old-fashioned and slick. An homage to James Bond and James Bond rip-offs, it's not quite a spoof, and yet it's not played seriously either. Short of being tongue-in-cheek, you could say that it's done with a grin on its face, with its melodramatic moments and goofy bits doled out in (almost) equal measure. It sometimes seems like it's going in the direction of a BLACK DYNAMITE, but then it rights itself with a genuinely cool fight sequence or some fancy gunplay.

"Is that a gun you're sticking under my chin or are you just- ah you know the rest..."

Mandrill (played with icy verve by Marko Zaror) is a too-cool Chilean assassin who is quite literally the man. Like a contract killer version of James Bond mixed with a Blaxploitation hero, he can seduce the ladies and gun down the baddies without missing a step; sometimes both things happen within the same minute. As a child, Mandrill saw his parents murdered by a mysterious man who left the scene with only one eye remaining - Mandrill's mother having gotten in a final blow before her execution. Working his jobs with calm ferocity, Mandrill is consistently on the hunt for this one-eyed man... and his new job may have inadvertently led to that man.

Of course, along the way he meets a beautiful woman who steals his heart (although he's also the sort of man who lovingly eyes every beautiful chick who crosses his path); sexy and fun, Dominik (Celine Reymond) seems poised to change the way Mandrill lives his life. Consequently, her presence threatens to destroy everything Mandrill has worked for.

Writer-director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza makes clear early on that MANDRILL is a tribute of sorts, giving his film the look and feel of a 70s action film without going overboard; thankfully, this isn't yet another "Grindhouse" wannabe, but a loving throwback to Espinoza's obvious inspirations (SHAFT being a clear one). Mandrill used to idolize a cheesy secret agent character named "John Colt", molding himself after the dashing spy, a nice echo of Espinoza's molding of his movie to emulate those he evidently grew up cherishing. Via flashbacks, we see how Mandrill crafted his image after Colt, while simultaneously getting lessons from his uncle Chone in the art of seducing women and making himself irresistible. (If only all of our uncles were so cool.) What's neat about all of this is that Espinoza isn't content to let Mandrill just be a soulless Bond knock-off, but a flesh-and-blood character with a vulnerable past and motivations for what he's doing.

But Espinoza's greatest strength is in making MANDRILL a movie that pulses with energy and fun. (How else to explain an impromptu dance-off at a karaoke bar that's unexpectedly silly but not outright ridiculous?) MANDRILL is just neat and doesn't feel the need to call attention to itself. Helping that are action scenes that don't try too hard to be "cutting edge". There's some great old-fashioned stuntwork on display, with martial arts fights that are nifty and slick. Most of all, they're thankfully not overly-choreographed and fake-looking (I've grown tired of hand-to-hand combat scenes that take forever and look like they're aided by digital trickery). Espinoza has a keen eye, and knows that sometimes less is more.

TOP ACTION: Toward the end, Mandrill has to square off against three different badasses in a high-flying, spin-kicking bout of awesomeness.

TOP DEATH: Needing to think quick after finding himself in a bind, Mandrill's knocks off one of his targets with the old radio-in-the-pool trick. Not exactly elegant, but gets the job done.

FEMALE EXPLOITATION: Celine Reymond, as Mandrill's woman, is a cup of spicy, sexy goodness if I ever saw one. Wow!

HOMOEROTIC MOMENT: Sometimes it seems like young Mandrill's hero-worship of "John Colt" borders on severe man-crush.

DRINKING GAME: Drink every time Mandrill knocks a dude out with one kick. You'll be drunk, like, really early on.

TOP DIALOGUE: Sexy woman that Mandrill is in the process of seducing: "Did you come here to commit suicide?"
Mandrill: "That was the idea, but I changed my mind."
Woman: "Get any closer and you'll end up with a bullet in the back of your head."
Mandrill: "I already have a bullet in my heart."

TRIVIA: Espinoza's two films before MANDRILL, KILTRO and MIRAGEMAN, both starred Marko Zaror.

Espinoza has a segment in the upcoming epic anthology THE ABCs OF DEATH.


Tags: reel action



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