Fantastic Fest 2009: Mandrill

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Directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

Chilean director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza and his action star collaborator, Marko Zaror, are three films deep now, with a fourth (in 3D!) on the way. Clearly they’ve found a formula that works for them, but I’m not as convinced. There’s plenty of  buzz around these guys, and they’re hyping their newest, Mandrill, quite enticingly. IMDb lists Mandrill’s tagline as “Cooler than Shaft, Hotter than Bond, Faster than Lee,” and my Fantastic Fest packet promises that I’ll be one of the first to experience the future of action heroism in Mr. Zaror. Now, I don’t want to try and predict Zaror’s career, and he definitely has the martial arts chops and camera-ready looks to be an action star, but I don’t think this is the movie that is going to take him there. It simply tries so earnestly to present a character cooler than Shaft, hotter than Bond, and faster than Lee, and make him sympathetic, that Zaror’s Mandrill inevitably winds up as an inconsistent mess.

Mandrill is a full-scale homage to our beloved action flicks of the 70s. And it has all the style, cheese, archetypes, and, occasionally, humor of its creative benefactors, but what it doesn’t have is a coherent vision. The film opens with Mandrill (Zaror) on the warpath, working his way up the organized crime ladder. It’s suggested in the outset that perhaps this is just his profession, a honest day’s wage, but the viewer finds out soon enough that their are ulterior motives at play. As he kills his way through various gangsters and seemingly innocent security detail, he happens across the beautiful Dominic (Celine Reymond) who just refuses to be seduced by all the usual lines. Meanwhile, in the past, Mandrill is reared and trained in the ways of love by his kindly uncle Chone (Alejandro Castillo).

Marko Zaror’s Mandrill is, in the opening scenes, a hilariously over-the-top Bond-type. He kills almost as ruthlessly as he seduces, and his first ten minutes are his finest–an impressive send-up of the stoic hitman. Then the flashbacks to Mandrill’s far-less-awesome youth begin. I appreciate entirely what Espinoza was attempting; a look behind the curtains of a suave, murder-licensed gentleman has the potential to be both revealing and amusing. But it instead marks the beginning of the unraveling of Mandrill’s character. The next stage in this unraveling comes with the introduction of love-interest Dominic, who finally falls in love with Mandrill in a stirring montage.

The problem with the flashbacks and the love montages are that they’re supposed to establish emotional investment, but are so soap operatic and cliche that they can’t. Mandrill and Dominic have some truly outstanding relationship issues over the course of the film, but, even if a bit of coy banter and one night of passion was enough to a establish a believable relationship, the two don’t have the chemistry to pull it off. Not to mention the fact that Mandrill is supposed to be cooler than Shaft, and Dominic is supposed to be the hard-to-get crime-boss’ daughter -instead, they’re frequently choked-up open diaries. It doesn’t help that the film is constructed in a series of escalating quiet emotional moments, emotional climaxes, and emotional revelations that all sadly depend on a similarly escalating audience investment that doesn’t necessarily manifest.

Don’t get me wrong, Mandrill is sometimes quite enjoyable. There is definitely something charmingly retro about this kind of hero, and, ever since Bond went all 21st century, there’s a vacancy to be filled. There are quite a few bits of truly inspired humor and, though occasionally repetitive, the action scenes are often very exciting and well choreographed. Mandrill is best when it’s self aware and jokey–a high point is a fictional 70s exploitation show that gets a montage and multiple callbacks. There are some exciting ideas at play here, and I could imagine a much more satisfying movie built from the same blocks, but the flick too often gets mired in trying to create tragic characters and situations out of stock comic ideas.

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