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 Video and Audio
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.