In a lot of ways, I am the perfect member of the Death Squad to write this review. In other ways, I may be the worst person. Two years ago, at Fantastic Fest III, I discovered a film from Chile called Mirageman. Mirageman I think is most aptly described as Batman Begins if you took away Bruce Wayne’s bankroll. It is about a young man who wants to become a superhero in order to inspire, and ultimately help to heal, his traumatized younger brother. While he has the will and happens to be a phenomenal martial artist, he has absolutely no resources and not the first clue on how to go about being a hero. What that film lacked in budget it made up for in heart and entertainment value and I loved every living second of it. It instantly became one of my favorite of the festival and honestly, one of my favorite superhero movies of all time. The film was directed by Ernesto Diaz Espinoza and starred a roundhouse-kicking force of nature by the name of Marko Zaror. When it was announced that their new film, Mandrill, would be playing this year’s fest, there was no question that I would see it. So yes, I have the best frame of reference for this film of our Death Squad, but I am also a giddy little fanboy when it comes to these guys.
Mandrill is essentially a spy film about a bounty hunting hitman called Mandrill who kicks unprecedented amounts of ass. In the course of his missions, he gets word that there is a contract out on a ruthless drug lord nicknamed the Cyclops. Being that Mandrill believes this to be the man that murdered his parents, he is more than willing to take the assignment. But the plot thickens when he falls in love with that drug lord’s daughter and must make the decision to either make her an orphan or forgo the vengeance for which he has waited his whole life.
I loved this film. Yes, there is no small amount of bias inherent in that statement but the fact of the matter is that Mandrill is an amazingly cool film. It delivers all the fantastic martial arts spectacle that we expect from Marko Zaror and the unique, heart-felt passion of Ernesto Diaz Espinoza flourishes. I love that each of his films are essentially love letters to the different genre films for which he clearly had a great deal of fondness as a child. With Mirageman, Diaz longed to make Chile’s first real superhero film because of his appreciation for them and Kiltro, another film he brought to FFIII, is a fantasy anime come to life. For Mandrill, there are really two fundamental wells of inspiration: early James Bond films and the exploitation films that subsequently ripped off the early Bond films. The film has scattered references to Goldfinger, Thunderball, and Diamonds Are Forever – the opening of the film featuring a near identical xerox of the opening sequence of Diamonds. On top of that, Ernesto actually creates a movie series within the movie featuring a character called John Colt. Colt, whose films are the fodder of 42nd Street, is revealed to be a major inspiration for the character and take us back to a time when exploitation ruled and copyright laws were lax.
One of the best parts of the James Bond homage is the new territory it presents for actor Marko Zaror. In all of the other Diaz Espinoza/Zaror projects, there is a very identifiable theme of the underdog overcoming impossible odds to be a hero. Mirageman is the champion of this theme. and it also appears in Kiltro. But in Mandrill, Zaror proves that he is in no way limited to playing the sweet, lovable hero. He is a ruthless, hard-nosed, and devilishly suave agent of mayhem. It’s clear he still has principles and a conscience, but that only serves to blend with the other qualities of his character and give us a darker, less-than-upstanding antihero that’s still lovable but in a very different way. Then slowly, and beautifully, as his backstory is revealed piece by piece and we get a sense of the character’s history, the tough guy veneer starts to melt away and you realize that you are looking at a hero not far removed from the core of the underdog like Mirageman.
The fun little exploitation film touches were superb. Mandrill features still-frame, stylistically-colored chapter breaks that smack of 70′s low budget action films. The music employs a good deal of the utterly fantastic wakka-chicka wakka-chicka soundtrack that would make Isaac Hayes grin, God rest his funky soul. The fashion, the aesthetic, the montages all speak to an era when auteurism took a giant backseat to entertainment value, an era that gave birth to badass cinema. The John Colt clips to which we are treated are unbelievably fun and set the tone of the film. It’s also a brilliant juxtaposition between films featuring horrendous excuses for martial arts and the caliber of fight sequences we get from a Marko Zaror film.
And my God if the fight scenes aren’t amazing. Marko once again, appropriately, takes on the duties of both lead actor and fight choreographer. The way Zaror approaches a fight scene demonstrates a level of professionalism and vision that is sadly absent in most Hollywood action films. Sure, the fighting is high impact and his acrobatics defy reason as well as gravity, but it is evident that the fighting is not superfluous but rather another tactic to achieving his objective as a character. Zaror refuses to use wires so every moment of every fight is entirely genuine. In Mandrill, Diaz Espinoza applies a good deal more slow motion than he ever has before that, when coupled with the awareness of a lack of wires, really highlights the athletic talent of Zaror. And although this is the first film where Zaror’s character actively uses firearms, those moments are sparse and it is clear that the weapon is a last resort. In other words, Marko will only use a gun if you are out of the immense range of his kicks.
If the movie suffers from any kind of flaw, it is the storyline with the daughter. There is a sort of left turn that the plot takes that, while I understand what they were trying to do, nearly grinds the pacing to a halt. I think the concept behind the shift in story is interesting when looked at in the context of the films they are referencing, but it could stand to be a little tighter. They hit on the idea one too many times and the resolution of the conflict isn’t all that satisfying. The very last shot is fabulous and quintessentially Diaz Espinoza, and I wonder if the plot toward the end isn’t a massive set up for the final moment. But that is my only real problem with Mandrill.
Another thing I really love is that at no point does it takes itself too seriously. The Mandrill character fires these outlandish lines to women in order to seduce them that would have 1962 Sean Connery tipping his hat. When I said they were referencing exploitation films, I mean that in every aspect. There are moments that are way over-the-top to serve this very purpose. I think my favorite involves a glass of stupendously potent alcohol and a lighter. Needless to say some poor bastard gets barbequed. If you need any further proof that this film is tongue-in-cheek brilliance, check out the first and only Marko Zaror dance sequence. It was almost Pulp Fiction-like in its out of character silliness but the audience went nuts for it.
This film, and these filmmakers, are Fantastic Fest royalty so it is not absurd to assume that my love of this film stems from my geek crush on these guys. But I have talked to a number of people who did not attend Fantastic Fest III and therefore are free of Mirageman fever, and it has been almost unanimous that this film is great. It is a fun, super cool step back in time to a period when films had little other intention than to hook people in with larger-than-life characters and balls-to-the-wall action. But it also features good actors who don’t take shortcuts and a director who knows how to tell a great story. This is my favorite film of Fantastic Fest.
The Upside: The martial arts sequences will drop your jaw and the story is hilarious when it needs to be while legitimately compelling at the same time.
The Downside: One minor story element that works, but not to the extent that it is used.
On the Side: Mandrill won both best picture and best actor for Zaror at the Fantastic Fest award ceremony.