Director : s Ethan Maniquis & Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay : Robert Rodriguez & Álvaro Rodríguez
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Danny Trejo (Machete), Robert De Niro (Senator McLaughlin), Jessica Alba (Sartana), Steven Seagal (Torrez), Michelle Rodriguez (Luz), Jeff Fahey (Booth), Cheech Marin (Padre), Don Johnson (Lt. Von Stillman), Shea Whigham (Sniper), Lindsay Lohan (April), Cheryl Chin (Torrez Henchwoman), Daryl Sabara (Julio), Gilbert Trejo (Jorge), Ara Celi (Reporter), Tom Savini (Osiris Ampanpour), Billy Blair (Von’s Henchman)
In a strange case of faux sleaze-art imitating faux sleaze-art imitating real sleaze-art, Machete unwittingly proves one of the fundamental truisms of exploitation cinema: The trailer is always better. As most know, Robert Rodriguez’s new Mexploitation action epic is based on a fake movie trailer he shot for Grindhouse (2007), the ambitious double-feature homage to ’70s B-movies he assembled with Quentin Tarantino. Virtually every shot in the trailer is replicated in the feature film (or, as far as I can tell, is the same footage), and as is true in most cases, it’s all the best material, meaning that the rest of the movie has to be padded out with extraneous dialogue and ludicrous plot developments. The auteurs of the exploitation heyday realized that they needed to get in and out in 90 minutes or less (less usually being better ... and cheaper), but Rodriguez is not content to merely imitate; he wants to glorify and expand, which is why Machete feels awfully long by the time we’re getting to the final reel (all of which, unlike the movies in Grindhouse, are accounted for).
Give Rodriguez credit where credit is due: He can certainly assemble a cast. The title role of Machete, a Mexican federale-turned-man with no country after he is betrayed and his family slaughtered, is played by Danny Trejo, who has spent several decades toiling in various heavy supporting roles, many of which were in Rodriguez’s previous films. Trejo has a face like a craggy rock, and he plays monosyllabic tough-cool to the point of absurdity without quite tipping over, thus saving himself from self-parody even as the rest of the movie gleefully wallows in it. Machete’s primary nemesis is Torrez (Steven Seagal), a South American drug lord who is merely the string puller in a massive conspiracy to support a rabid right-wing senator’s (Robert De Niro) desire to build a fence between the U.S. and Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants. His primary player is the senator’s chief aid (Jeff Fahey), who hires Machete (thinking he’s an ordinary day laborer) to assassinate the senator and then double-crosses him. Bad idea, as this gives even more fuel to Machete’s vigilantism, which Rodriguez uses as a sledgehammer means of addressing the current political morass regarding immigration. It isn’t too often that a filmmaker uses a sleaze epic as a bully pulpit for political grandstanding, and it runs contrary to the movie’s overall tone, which is fast and sloppy. All the speechifying slows it down.
Like Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), the third of Rodriguez’s “Mariachi” films, Machete has too much plot for its own good. Along with everything described above, the story also includes a subplot involving the investigation by a leggy immigration officer (Jessica Alba) into a highly organized network of illegal border crossing organized by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who runs a taco trailer by day and may or may not be a legendary South American rebel known only as “She.” Oh, and while ticking off the film’s female stars, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the presence of Lindsay Lohan as a wayward daughter who eventually dons a nun’s habit, but not because she has a religious conversion. And speaking of religion, Rodriguez has a grand ol’ time sending it up, particularly Catholicism, in the form of Cheech Marin’s Padre, a priest who has no qualms about video-recording confessions and pulling out shotguns when necessary.
Like Grindhouse, Machete is intended to look like and play like garbage, which gives Rodriguez and his co-director Ethan Maniquis (who has worked with Rodriguez as an editor since 1995’s Desperado) an excuse for just about anything, including cheesy, soft-core “wah-wah” music any time there’s a naked woman on screen, intentionally bad acting, and the kind of gratuitous violence in which Machete disembowels a villain and literally swings from his intestine, a gory gag that is amusingly set up via medical dialogue about the length of a human’s small intestine. The image has been given a digital sheen of dirt, scratches, and mold, giving it the appearance of a reel that has been sitting in someone’s basement for 30 years, although the characters’ constant use of cell phones remind us that this is very much a story in the here and now (it also gives us the movie’s best one-liner: “Machete don’t text.”). Despite the presence of legendary make-up effects artist Tom Savini in a small role as a professional hitman, Rodriguez also can’t help but exploit the potentials of today’s CGI to enhance the movie’s various decapitations, dismemberments, and obliterations via shotgun with plenty of digital arterial spray, although the gooshy sound effects are decidedly old-school.
In its own way, Machete works, and its mixing of the old and the new has an infectious vibe at times, but you can’t help but wonder if Rodriguez will ever grow past his obsession with recreating the gutter past and return to the kind of innovative tendencies he displayed with Sin City (2005). As we all know, you can take the boy out of the trashy 42nd Street theater, but you can’t take the trashy 42nd Street theater out of the boy.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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