With Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme getting older, Hollywood’s next top martial-arts talent could well be tall, dark and handsome “Mandrill” star Marko Zaror. Though international auds seem slow to embrace the idea of a high-kicking, back-flipping Latin American action hero, Zaror is the real deal, as he proves in this reteaming with ever-resourceful helmer Ernesto Diaz Espinoza. Following cult faves “Kiltro” and “Mirageman,” the duo’s latest collaboration serves up more low-budget ingenuity, delivering a breezy bounty-hunter romp crowd-friendly enough to earn top feature and actor honors at Fantastic Fest.
Every so often there comes a movie where, no matter how corny or under-resourced the concept, all those involved seem to be having such a blast, auds can’t help but embrace the effort. In “Mandrill,” it feels as if a kid who grew up play-acting James Bond scenarios finally got the chance to step into his shoes onscreen. Believability is beside the point; Zaror’s enthusiasm alone sells the part.
Unlike “Mirageman,” which served as an extended origin story for a new South American superhero, “Mandrill” plays fast and loose with exposition, assuming auds are familiar enough with the genre (inspired by Bond but stylistically more in keeping with such late-’60s actioners as “In Like Flint” and “Point Blank”) not to require much backstory. In short, Zaror plays Mandrill, Chile’s top assassin, who went into the murder business hoping to get revenge on the one-eyed man who killed his parents. Now Mandrill’s time has finally come, complicated by the fact that he finds the target’s daughter, Dominik (lovely Celine Reymond), irresistible.
Though Mandrill’s persona is partially defined by his enormous gun, Zaror’s gifts are such that the character resorts to shooting only when absolutely necessary; Mandrill is swift enough that he can dodge bullets and disarm the shooter with a single well-timed backflip. Zaror’s fight choreography resembles the gravity-defying moves in Hong Kong action films, the big difference being that he does all his stunts without the aid of digital trickery or wires. To keep things interesting, Zaror insists Mandrill absorb a few heavy-duty blows before gaining the upper hand in any given fight.
Falling somewhere between sendup and homage, “Mandrill” works because the characters never lapse into wink-wink ironic detachment. It’s silly in parts (in one scene, Mandrill emerges from a pool with his dripping revolver drawn), but the cast so fully commits to the material that it’s easy to forgive the project’s ragged edges. After the lantern-jawed seriousness of his earlier roles, Zaror loosens up as Mandrill, exchanging googly-eyes with Dominik at the poker table and demonstrating how his suave moves translate to both the dance floor and the bedroom — much to the delight of his female fans.
Certain stylistic touches (including freeze-frame endings to the major setpieces) and Rocco’s funky score contribute to pic’s overall retro vibe, while extreme widescreen framing makes occasional telenovela moments (such as the overused flashbacks to the character’s more sensitive past) feel much more cinematic. A running gag featuring Mandrill’s bigscreen idol, imaginary ’60s action hero John Colt (Mauricio Cespedes), allows director Diaz Espinoza to riff on his influences, with badly blocked fight scenes that cleverly underscore just how far Zaror has advanced the art of onscreen altercations.