Entering the picture to James Bond-style guitar riffs, and quickly dispensing of a few nobodies without messing up his nice suit or slick shades, there's no question that Mandrill (Marko Zaror) is a cool character in the mind of director/writer Ernesto Díaz Espinoza. The mind of the viewer is another story. Zaror is a talented martial artist with some eye-popping moves in his arsenal, but the film he's in is an unbalanced mixture of tribute and spoof that's so busy aggressively executing a laundry list of stylistic touches that it forgets to give us characters worth caring about.
As a boy, Antonio Espinoza watched as his parents were murdered before his eyes by a gangster who got away. Raised afterward by his Uncle Chone (Alejandro Castillo), Antonio's obsession with film spy John Colt (an even more blatant Bond reference, right down to the film posters that cover Antonio's walls) turns into an unorthodox career when he takes on the nickname Mandrill and becomes one of the best hitmen in the business. Throughout it all, he's got his ear to the ground for any word on his parents' killer, and he's just a few more confessions from finding him when the beautiful Dominik Del Solar (Celine Reymond) unexpectedly commands his attention.
The first twenty or so minutes of the film are simply Mandrill in action. Mandrill isn't exactly the kind of guy who likes to sit down and talk things out, and as such, he probably lands more punches and kicks than he speaks complete sentences. Espinoza may think he's showing us just how good Mandrill is at his job, and showing off some of Zaror's talents, but the quiet cool approach makes it hard to connect bright-eyed Antonio (who honestly doesn't even seem that troubled by the death of his parents) to the cold, stoic Mandrill. Espinoza has structured his flashbacks in a way that jumps over whatever it was that motivates the character's transformation from a teenager nervously asking his uncle for advice on picking up women to a man dead set on revenge, and when we don't know what it was that set him off, it's hard not to like the kid more than the adult.
Worse, the fight scenes themselves are lacking. Zaror has what have to be some of the fastest hands I've ever seen, and it's impressive to watch him throw his imposing frame around like gravity is just a suggestion. Still, the number of physical feats that any viewer of action movies hasn't seen someone do in one form or another a hundred times is probably not very high, and Mandrill fails to shake things up. It may not be a great movie, but Shanghai Knights remains one of Jackie Chan's most impressive American stunt pictures because he got inventive with the routines in terms of props, techniques, and scenarios. One of Mandrill's climactic final fights takes place in an empty room -- nothing fun or creative is going to arise from a blank slate setting.
Just as Mandrill is about to head into the home stretch, the film arrived at a moment where I really wasn't sure what was going to happen next. In retrospect, it was a pivotal moment: I may not know exactly how I would've liked the film to play out from there, but instead of any number of options that might've told us more about Dominik (Reymond is a highlight, exhibiting a bit of star electricity), the film recedes even further into its stylistic shell, referencing itself in an ending that really throws away what little connection there is to anything happening on screen. Taken as a whole, Mandrill appears to have its own story and characters, but take away James Bond, and the character is a big 00-nothing.
The cool vibe put off by the Mandrill poster should be more than enough to catch a few people's eyes on the rental shelf (or Redbox screen). It's simple without being boring and somehow captures a tiny bit of the imagination along with the viewer's attention. The disc is housed in a Viva Elite eco case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Magnolia offers Mandrill in a 2.35:1 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer that appears to accurately represent the source material, even when the source material has its own ups and downs. An early scene where Mandrill talks to a woman and a man on a backyard porch varies from shot to shot, as if some of the footage was captured on different equipment. During the film's darker scenes, film grain gets a little noisy, but is generally unintrusive. The film's cinematography looks as if it has occasionally been color-tweaked in post, and sometimes whites appear overcooked or even turn blue. Still, these are reflective of a film shot on a low budget with modern HD equipment, and none of the picture's quirks appear to be as a result of Blu-Ray technicians.
A Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a little underwhelming. Dialogue, music, and sound effects are the only three components here -- not much ambiance or atmosphere to get sucked into. The mix has that low-budget feel to it: weightless sound effects, completely clean music and dialogue...the sound of digital rubbing against digital in a non-studio mixing room. It's sufficient, but it never packs the kind of punch one really wants from an action movie. An English 5.1 DTS-HD MA dub and both English subtitles and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
A brief bit of behind-the-scenes footage (2:32, SD) and specific B-roll from three action sequences under the heading Anatomy of a Fight (7:24 total, SD) are all that's included.
Trailers for Outrage, Point Blank, Blackthorn, I Melt With You, and a promo for HDNet play before the main menu. The U.S. redband theatrical trailer for Mandrill is also included in HD.
With a bit more character work, a more pronounced sense of humor, and a better ending, Mandrill might've been a decent rental. As it is, it's a shell of a movie filled with other, better movies...ones that are probably more deserving of your time. Skip it.
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