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tv review

Robert Rodriguez’s Matador Is an Enjoyably Ludicrous TV Spy Drama

You've got to give it to Robert Rodriguez: He doesn't love trash ironically. Not for one second does the director of From Dusk Till Dawn, Planet Terror, and the Machete series seem guilty about his pleasures. Matador, the flagship drama on El Rey, a new genre-driven cable channel he co-founded with FactoryMade Ventures and Univision, is a case in point. The opening credits of this spy drama might set off your too-many-cooks alarm bells: Roberto Orci, Dan Dworkin, Jay Beattie, and Andrew Orci all masterminded it, apparently.

But the show still feels like a Rodriguez production. It's all explosions and gunplay and power walks and fast cutting and unmotivated slow-motion and sudden killings that are there just to keep audiences from getting complacent, plus cynical banter that's snapped off quickly, so that you don't notice how lamely written it is. ("You should see the other guy," quips a jailhouse contact with a beaten-up face.) It's very much in line with that super-self-aware, too-young-to-have-attended-real-grindhouses-but-I-can-dream vibe that we've come to associate with Rodriguez, who is credited as an executive producer on this show and who seems to be the El Rey Network's guiding spirit as well as its corporate mascot. The show is a compendium of high-octane clichés, just clever enough that you can't call it stupid and just stupid enough that you can't call it clever. That's a sweet spot, maybe.

There are three saving graces. One is the premise, which is enjoyably ludicrous. The hero, Tony Bravo (Gabriel Luna, in his first starring role), plays a DEA agent recruited into the CIA after they witness his incredible speed and agility as he runs down a suspect. His mission is to infiltrate the L.A. Riot, a soccer team owned by an international billionaire and seemingly James Bond-esque villain (Alfred Molina, hooray) who's rumored to be connected with everything from the BCCI scandal (look it up, kids) to various coups d'état. Tony's main job is to keep tabs on and eventually expose the team owner, but from week to week he'll carry out self-contained missions when he isn't trying to lead the team to victory.

The second saving grace is the multicultural cast and international flavor, which is in line with Rodriguez's promise to create, as he put it, a network with a face "that more resembles the face of the country." And the world, it would seem: Matador's cast includes a number of character actors you're always glad to see (including Elizabeth Peña, Louis Ozawa Changchien, and Jude Ciccolella) and boasts a United Nation's worth of races, ethnicities, accents, and subtitled languages. In the opening action scene, the bad guy is a German drug dealer who makes his own sausages right there in the hotel suite where a deal is taking place, and who slams his cleaver into the chopping block to punctuate his threats. Roberto Orci knows this territory: He used to work on Alias. This show feels like Alias plus a sports movie plus Robert Rodriguez, except when it also feels like an episode of Archer, though never as funny.

The third saving grace, certainly not to be underestimated, is Luna, who's got a marvelous Everyman quality, so blank-faced that he stops just short of being wooden. He lets you see the nervousness, even fear, in the hero's eyes even when he's plausibly hiding those same qualities from the people he wants to fool. (He's also very good at playing drunk, which comes in handy when you're portraying a rare spy who can't hold his liquor.) And he's magnificent in action. I could watch him kick soccer balls and kick ass all day long. Judging from the pilot of Matador, I came to the right place.