El Rey’s Matador (Tuesdays, 9/8C) is the second original scripted series for the network and catches the cachet of the World Cup, the idea of the 1% taking over the world, and good old espionage. It’s a bit like a current take of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with a Hispanic Napoleon Solo. It’s smart, fun and knowing.
Antonio Bravo (Gabriel Luna) is a DEA agent who winds up part of small, elite, very much off the books section of the CIA. He gets there because he’s fast – a spy satellite video has him running down a major drug kingpin with the equivalent of a 4.3 second forty. It also replays the result of doing so while not doing well with tequila.
After a dinner with family sequence in which we meet Tony’s mother, Maritza (Elizabeth Peña, Lone Star, The Incredibles), stepfather, Javi Sandoval (Julio Oscar Mechoso (Machete Kills, Little Miss Sunshine), and half-sister Christina (Isabella Gomez) – characters I hope will be given much more development over the first season – he finds himself ambushed and whisked away, hooded, to a small, but sleek office by Annie Mason (Nicky Whelan, Scrubs, Franklin & Bash) and Noah Peacott (Neil Hopkins, Lost, Witches of East End).
It seems that one of their operatives had been murdered trying to obtain intelligence from Andrés Galan (Alfred Molina), telecom mogul and owner of the Los Angeles Riot pro soccer team – which is where Tony and his 4.3/40 come in.
Galan is holding open tryouts for the Riot as a publicity stunt and Annie wants Tony to try out. If he gets past the first round, he’ll gain access to Galan’s palatial home – which is where the intel will be. Of course, Tony hasn’t playing since winning a college scholarship so he needs to knock the rust off, which is where a former U.S. Olympian comes in and proceeds to run him ragged.
As incentive, Annie promises that Tony’s imprisoned half-brother, Ricky (Jonny Cruz, Small Timers, Cool Wheels), will be paroled.
The premiere, Quid Go Pro, is a fast-paced hour with more characters than are possible to develop much beyond broad strokes, but several show signs of being fascinating: Galen’s hot-to-trot daughter, Senna (Yvette Monreal, Awkward); slightly past his prime English Riot star, Alec Hoelster (Tanc Sade); Samuel AKA Creepy (Louis Ozawa Changchien, The Bourne Legacy, Predators), Galan’s Asian errand boy; and Didi Akinyele (Sammi Rotibi, Django Unchained), the perceptive Riot assistant coach.
Quid Go Pro makes a point of asking why, with the technology at their command, Annie and Neil need a human being to do the job – then answer the question smartly and with a degree of wit. The premiere – written by series creators Roberto Orci, Jay Beattie, Dan Dworkin and Andrew Orci – was directed by Robert Rodriguez, so you know it has to be fast-paced and slick (but not too slick).
The comparison I made to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not idly made. Matador plays out as a drama with moments of humor ranging from grotesque (see: Tony and tequila not getting along!) to sublime – it’s genuinely witty a good deal of the time (as with the birth of Tony’s nickname, Matador). A lot of thought went into the set up and the reasons for using/not using tech in varying situations make sense.
Gabriel Luna has both the panache to be a globetrotting soccer star and the warmth to be part of a loving family. He holds the screen well and gets a chance to exhibit considerably more range than in previous roles.
As Galan, Molina gets to play a villain who feels of the real world – one of the top 1% of the 1% – and simultaneously, an indugent (if inattentive) father.
Overall, the cast of Matador, at least in the premiere, does a terrific job – terrific enough that when the screener ended, I wanted more (and right now, dammit!).
Matador has the potential to be a great summer ride and I’m definitely buying a ticket.
Final Grade: A-
Photos courtesy of El Rey