Marko Zaror and Ernesto Diaz Espinoza are back with another Chilean riff on Hollywood action films. In Mirageman, they tackled the super hero origin story with deft humor and hand-held, gonzo filmmaking. With Mandrill, they are knocking off the super-spy/millionaire hitman genre and once again they do it in style. Though Mandrill feels bigger and more thought-out than Mirageman, it’s coming from the same place. Espinoza loves silly action films, comic books, and all of the things that a kid growing up on Star Wars and Kung-Fu should love, and in Zaror he’s teamed up with a perfect straight-man and lead.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Zaror onscreen. He’s a big guy but he moves with power and quickness that you don’t often see in modern films. His fights aren’t staged around walking up walls or jumping through hoops of fire, but they are brutal and efficient. We’ve probably all gotten a little spoiled by creative fights that take advantage of wirework, parkour, or ingenious use of chairs and tables, but Zaror is cut from a different cloth and his fight scenes are a refreshing change of pace. Steven Segal used to have fights like that, but he was never as quick or as acrobatic as Zaror. Watching Zaror leap backwards from a dead stop, twist in a corkscrew, and then plant a kick to the back of an assailant’s head–well it’s just awesome.
While Zaror is bound to get used as a villain or heavy in plenty of Hollywood films, his work with Espinoza is something special. Since they are playing outside of the big studio/big name system, they can get away with campy homage that takes a basic story like Mandrill and elevates it with some great comedy. Mandrill is the codename for Zaror’s character, who grows up in the shadow of his parents’ murder but also in awe of a film character named John Colt. Colt’s exploits play out as a film within a film, and we get to see Colt square off against henchmen in bad suits and heinous evil masterminds, all set to sleazy Latin funk.
The fake John Colt movie is what really pushes Mandrill over the edge into the enthusiastic plus column for me. Without John Colt, Mandrill’s James Bond riff might not be as obvious a joke as the filmmakers intended. With it, even the way that Mandrill’s name is spoken in a sultry whisper becomes funny.
Like Mirageman, Mandrill balances humor and action, a serious story with a wink at the audience, and it does all of that with a fantastic leading man who should be a big star. The ending is a little rough, but when the movie clicks it’s a lot of fun. I hate to think that Zaror will get gobbled up by people making crappy Hollywood fight films, but I suspect that he has a real love for the movies that he’s making down in Chile. I’m sure we’ll see him squaring off against Jason Statham sometime soon, but I also hope we’ll see him again in a sequel to Mirageman or in whatever else he and Espinoza want to cook up.