September 05, 2010

Machete

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Machete

THRILLER:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-09-03

Running Length:

1:45

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Content, Drugs)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan

Director:

Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis

Screenplay:

Robert Rodriguez

Cinematography:

Jimmy Lindsey

Music:

John Debney

U.S. Distributor:

20th Century Fox

Subtitles:

In English and Spanish with English subtitles


I went to Machete expecting an exploitation film and got a socio-political lecture instead. Although an exaggeration, that's the way it sometimes felt. Director Robert Rodriguez understands the exploitation genre and delivers everything one craves from it - over-the-top, graphic violence; scenery-chewing villains; cheesy one-liners; and plenty of naked boobs and bums. It's all there in glorious 2D. The questionable aspect of Machete is that Rodriguez apparently has an ax to grind about U.S. immigration policy and the manner in which he chooses to address it is anything-but-subtle. I have nothing against films that take political stances, but an exploitation flick? It's off-putting. I'd prefer to sit back and bask in the carnage and R-rated silliness.

Machete has its roots in Grindhouse, the failed 2007 double-bill from Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (who has a producer credit here). Grindhouse featured a fake trailer for something called Machete, and Rodriguez (helped along by co-director Ethan Maniquis) has expanded the trailer into a full movie (the reverse of what usually happens). The style is pure Planet Terror, with Rodriguez providing fetishistic and sacrilegious images: a one-eyed woman clad in a skimpy leather outfit wielding a massive gun, a shotgun-toting priest, and Lindsay Lohan in a habit (that's in, not with). Of the three recent exploitation films (the other two being The Expendables and Piranha 3D), this one comes the closest to outright parody, although, for this genre, it's sometimes hard to differentiate where the line exists between the straight and the satirical.

Machete (played with grim-faced, unsmiling grumpiness by Danny Trejo) is an ex-Federale who was set up and left for dead by Mexican drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal, wearing costumes that attempt to hide his massive girth). Now, with his wife and daughter dead and no country to call his own, Machete is eking out a living as a day laborer until a man in a suit (Jeff Fahey) offers him $150,000 to kill Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), a rabid anti-immigration politician. Machete reluctantly accepts, but discovers too late that this is a setup designed to make McLaughlin a more sympathetic figure. On the run, he finds himself caught between Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a lunch stand operator who is helping illegal immigrants crossing over from Mexico, and Sartana (Jessica Alba), an immigration officer whose goal is to take down Luz. When Machete learns of the connection between McLaughlin, a racist vigilante (Don Johnson), and Torrez, he sharpens his blade, borrows a few firearms, and goes hunting.

Danny Trejo, who has long been one of Rodriguez's favorite actors, is perfect for the role, playing it straight despite how ludicrously over-the-top everything around him is. The way he growls one-liners like "Machete don't text" is priceless. Equally good is Michelle Rodriguez, although my opinion of her performance may have been influenced by the outfit she wears toward the end. Cheech Marin has a fun couple of scenes, although his inclusion in the film occurs primarily because of his appearance in the fake trailer. As villains go, Jeff Fahey is at his oily best, although the way he meets his end is a little anticlimactic. All is not good, however. Robert De Niro mails in his performance, neither playing it straight nor going far enough over-the-top to be fun. Looking at the recent filmography of this former acting titan is downright depressing. Jessica Alba is awful - not surprising, but she showed some semblance of acting ability in The Killer Inside Me. Steven Seagal, playing his first bad guy, is typically one-note (although it's fun the way Rodriguez uses the Six Million Dollar Man's "bionic sound" every time Torrez draws his sword). Lindsay Lohan's appearance appears to be one big in-joke, since she's playing a coke-sniffing, narcissistic party girl who strips naked and frolics in a pool while filming the entire thing.

Rumor has it that significant chunks of Machete were filmed in 2007 with the "fill in" pieces being lensed more recently. If this is the case, the seams are not visible. Rodriguez's penchant for gore is on display, with more body parts being hacked off than in the average horror film. It would be interesting to see a contest between Machete and Michael Myers. Much (if not all) of the humor is intentional (although some of it is done in the "unintentional intentional" style). The best joke may be at the end when the two Machete sequels are announced, although some may be more amused by the answer to the question of where a naked woman comes up with a cell phone.

As fun as the film can be at times, there's still the buzzkill aspect that results from Rodriguez deciding to use this platform to make a political point. Even proponents of his pro-illegal immigration (some might call it "humanitarian") position may be annoyed by its inclusion in Machete. There's too much earnestness for it all to be a big joke. Then again, having Jessica Alba deliver the rousing speech (with apologies to Malcolm X: "We didn't cross over the border; the border crossed over us") makes one wonder. And the fake political ads for the Senator are laugh-aloud funny. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that Rodriguez is making a statement, and a gladiatorial arena like Machete is a poor place to be preaching.

Here's the fake trailer from Grindhouse (for comparison with the real one, below):

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