Judge Adam Arseneau will not be flying down to Rio anytime soon.
Our review of Mandrake (2010), published April 22nd, 2011, is also available.
Otra forma de ver la justice.
Mandrake has everything needed for a winning formula: a handsome leading man, scantily-clad and naked women, the slimy underbelly of Brazil and enough svelte charm to shame James Bond. Too bad something gets lost in translation.
Facts of the Case
Paulo Mandrake (Marcos Palmeira) is a lawyer who skirts the cracks of Brazilian society, serving the interests of his high-class, powerful clients by slumming with the drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and criminals. His law partner does not always approve of his methods, but no one can question the results—Mandrake is a man who gets things done. With corruption at every turn in Rio de Janeiro, Mandrake knows all the players; corrupt politicians, policeman on the take, back alley criminals and a bevy of beautiful women who share his bed on a rotating basis.
Mandrake: Seasons 1 and 2 contains all twelve episodes from both seasons of the show.
A popular success for HBO Latin America, the Brazilian Mandrake ran for two seasons and drew critical praise in its homeland. Adapted from the work of best-selling Brazilian novelist Rubem Fonseca, the show takes viewers into the strange, frenetic, smoky life of an unscrupulous lawyer who dances between the upper class and the seedy underbelly of Rio de Janeiro. Make Danny Ocean a Brazilian lawyer and you're in the right ballpark.
HBO Latin America certainly knows how to emulate its North American namesake. Mandrake is full of naked girls being naked, and naked men being naked, and they do…you know, grown-up things. Drinking, drugs, sex—hey, it's Rio. Corruption ebbs from every direction, but Mandrake navigates every obstacle with seasoned ease. Mandrake the pseudo-lawyer dances from drug dealer to prostitute to high society soiree with charm that borders on obnoxious. All the elements of a great show are here, right in front of us, but it's like a jigsaw puzzle unassembled. The show never manages to put things together in any meaningful way.
Maybe something just gets lost in translation. The writing feels strange and jumpy, punctuating plot points with seemingly random hookups with any of the half dozen women Mandrake is boning at any given time. Mandrake never really does anything lawyer-like, other than wear nice suits. He runs around, makes out with women, slums it with the seedier elements of Rio, and then manages to put together the case with reverse engineering or magic or something. We see the seedy underbelly of Brazilian life; the rampant corruption, the sex trade, the poverty, and then the high class opulence of the rich and wealthy in stark contrast. In the middle, we find Mandrake, with nary a wrinkle on his suit, or a moral dilemma in his heart. He makes it look too easy…and easy is boring.
Maybe it's me. I am officially the most nebbish person on the planet. It's possible I just don't get the whole vibe of Mandrake; the smoky jazz riffs, the endless cigarette smoking, the seedy streets and favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the hot and cold running women who flow out of the back alleys and onto the beaches. It could be simply that this Judge needs to recuse himself. I'm certainly willing to admit a certain level of ignorance here, but I guess I need my crime detective stories to have a modicum of realness I can relate to. For all intents and purposes, the world of Mandrake may as well be science fiction.
Mandrake: Seasons 1 and 2 is a screaming mess, at least from a technical standpoint. Presented in a soul-crushing, tear-inducing 2.35:1 letterbox transfer, the transfer is a horrible mess of saturation, washed-out black levels and more grain than a box of sandpaper. Now, to be fair, a lot of these decisions are clearly deliberate—Mandrake goes for an edgy, urbane vibe full of noise and smoke, so the low fidelity, I get. But in letterbox? It's just too much to handle. It's like a gigantic black frame around an ugly, ugly picture.
Presented in native Brazilian Portuguese in a respectable Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, Mandrake fares better in the audio department. Sure, we get some ambient clutter and muffled dialog now and again, but nothing reproachable. Bass response is minimal, but the jazz score suits the series to a tee. A Spanish stereo dub is also included, which should help the show find a wider audience in the Latin America market. As for us English speaking folks, it's subtitles or bust—no dub for you, boys and girls. Frankly, I am okay with that.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only moments on the show that feel real and meaningful are the conversations between Mandrake and his boss Wexler, an elderly Jewish lawyer who handles, presumably, all the real lawyer work. The two are oil and water; the young and the old generation at perpetual war, squabbling about morality and womanizing, of issues of right and wrong. You can tell Mandrake regards his elderly employer as an ersatz father figure of sorts; and just like a disobedient teenager, Mandrake takes great pleasure in categorically ignoring his advice. It is a charming dichotomy.
Mandrake is a good showing from HBO Latin America, and will surely gather fans of Fonseca's work, but the show never finds that magical stride needed to break into North American audiences. We need to see more of Mandrake as a human being; a flawed, damaged fellow who suffers for his schizophrenic role between the rich and poor. Instead, we just get a James Bond wannabe: charming, effortless, one note. It gets old quick.
Guilty, but admittedly stylish.
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