CIA spy satellites, Rocky-style sports training montages, shadowy global conspiracies, bleach-blond yakuzas and cannibalistic eastern-European soccer fanatics – who would have expected less from Robert Rodriguez’ newly christened Latino-themed, grindhouse-style television station, El Rey?
Christened Matador, the show – yes, all of this is in one show – follows undercover DEA agent and east-LA native, Tony Bravo (played by Gabriel Luna) as he is recruited by the CIA to infiltrate the fictional L.A. Riot soccer team and get the scoop on its shady owner and telecom business mogul Andrés Galán (played by the venerable Alfred Molina). While his soccer skills are suspect, after about two minutes of cross-cutting accompanied by upbeat, inspirational music, Bravo goes from a flat-footed amateur to well-trained soccer machine in a span of time that seems like a lunch break.
After causing a hullabaloo at the team’s open tryouts when he disables the Riot’s star enforcer in an act of self-defense, Bravo makes the first cut and completes his mission while an amateur video of his squabble with the monstrous defender goes viral. Dubbed “The Matador” by his growing coterie of internet fans, the business savvy Galán sees a future star in the newfound internet celeb and offers a one year contract before the second round of tryouts even kicks off.
Co-created by powerhouse genre writer/producer Roberto Orci (Mission: Impossible III, Watchmen, Spiderman II & III), suffice it to say that Matador is more than confident in its unusual genre mashup. Walking a fine line between spy-thriller and sports drama, Matador isn’t short on lighter, comedic moments and doesn’t miss the obligatory touches of family melodrama to round things out (in this case, of course, with a Latin flair). With expertly handled pacing and just enough information to keep you coming back for more, there is no question that this is big-league television writing.
Helmed by the maestro himself, Robert Rodriguez, the 45-minute series premiere is taut and masterfully directed. Replete with dizzying chase scenes and nimble dialogue. The camera tracks, pans and sweeps its way through the episode’s numerous actions sequences before settling down just in time to build the tension back up to a breaking point. An effect heavy soundtrack laid thick with taiko-style drum breaks a la Hans Zimmer and inevitable low-frequency drops, gives the heart the necessary flutter while perhaps lacking a bit in delicacy and grace.
For better or for worse, the casting evidently went the way of network television, opting for square jaws and furrowed brows over the more nuanced approaches favored by the likes of AMC and HBO. Alongside Molina, actors Elizabeth Peña (La Bamba) and Julio Oscar Mechoso (Machete Kills) bring a much needed dose of old-school acting chops while the younger set smirks and scowls its way through the script. Be that as it may, there isn’t a lot of room for deep feelings amidst the layers of intrigue served up by Orci and company, so consider it a minor flaw.
As one of two original series on the El Rey roster, Matador shows a lot of promise for Rodriguez’ iconoclastic upstart TV station, going beyond the easily dismissed label of ‘Latino content’ and bringing high quality genre TV that transcends ethnic niches. While they no doubt have a long way to go before earning the title of “King” of genre television, having a dugout full of heavyweights like Rodriguez and Orci makes it clear that El Rey doesn’t plan on puttering around in the minor leagues for very long.