Review: ‘Matador’ mixes soccer, spies and sangria in fun retro style

Gabriel Luna, left, Jeff Berg and Julien Samani in a scene from "Matador."
(Richard Foreman Jr. / El Rey Network)

You’ve got another four years to wait for the FIFA World Cup, and a year for the Women’s World Cup, but you won’t have to wait very long at all for “Matador,” a spy story with a soccer setting and Latin twist and the second original series from Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network. It starts Tuesday.

Gabriel Luna (more sweet than sardonic) plays Tony Bravo, a Mexican American DEA undercover agent pressed into service by the CIA to infiltrate the fictional L.A. Riot, whose telecom-bazillionaire owner (Alfred Molina) is secretly involved in an “international syndicate that’s had a hand in a range of global disturbances.” You know the type, and the other types mustered here.

El Rey, Rodriguez has said, was made to target and/or serve young English-speaking Latin Americans. More particularly it is made for English-speaking Latin Americans who grew up on genre films and, more broadly, for anyone else who did. Bravo himself, a child of East L.A., speaks almost no Spanish.

“No gracias,” he says in an early scene as a bellboy reaches to grab a bag too important for a bellboy to grab. “Fragile,” pronouncing the word, like Darren McGavin in “A Christmas Story,” as if it were Italian.


Rodriguez, who directed the pilot episode, is also the director of “From Dusk Till Dawn” — adapted into El Rey’s first series — “Desperado,” “Machete” and “Spy Kids.” Series creators Jay Beattie, Dan Dworkin, Andrew Orci and Roberto Orci have “Revenge,” “Fringe,” “Sleepy Hollow,” the “Star Trek” reboot and a bunch of “Transformers” stuff in their collective big pocket.

It’s not a series that bears close reading, nor does it need to. The whole first episode is predicated on the notion that there is no easier way to get an undercover agent into an exclusive party than to find one with some soccer skills and train him to make the first cut in open tryouts for a professional football team. But this is a thing you notice only after you have watched it twice and have begun to write a review.

But the shows and movies from which “Matador” takes inspiration and nods back toward — lightly parodic ‘60s stuff, largely, like “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and Matt Helm films — were not much concerned with narrative logic either. They just needed to get their heroes to the next set piece, with enough color and comedy and motion to make you not mind the gaps. And “Matador” does that with style.

The flavor is high-style retro-modern, high-style B-picture. The soundtrack pulls out the drum loops and surf guitar to suggest the melding of past and present. Bravo’s CIA superior, Annie Mason (Nicky Whelan, yet another Australian blond, like Yvonne Strahovski in “Chuck” and Anna Torv in “Fringe,” playing an American action heroine), first appears in a black turtleneck, standard issue to 1960s screen spies and later in a tight shiny thing, also very much standard issue, for a scene that also lets the producers put Luna into evening wear.

The Mexican American elements are appropriate to the premise — football being largely fútbol hereabout — but are also not oversold. A little sangria, talk of a quinceañera, short blasts of flamenco guitar — the culture is acknowledged, but it’s never the point. It matters and it doesn’t matter, and there’s a sort of progress in that.

The show is relatively family friendly. Where “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” is bloody to beat the band — vampires, after all — “Matador,” except for an extended action sequence at the beginning, relies more on the threat of violence than on its depiction. What is shown consists largely of conks on the head.

The language is similarly reserved and sex limited to sexiness: the attitude, not the act. (It is by current standards, remarkably chaste and upright.) Women are not decoration, as in the days of the Connery Bond. Luna has a mother and a sister, whom he respects, works for a woman and gets his soccer training from one.

A second season has already been ordered.


Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd




Where: El Rey Network

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: Not rated