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Movie Review: Machete
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Machete
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan
20th Century Fox
Release Date: September 3, 2010

Keep your cheesy horror flicks and interchangeable kiddy crap. I’m wrapping up my movie going summer basking in the glory of the mightiness of Machete, a movie that by all accounts should not even exist. It started out as an idea for a movie Robert Rodriguez intended to build around the unique talent and looks of his frequent collaborator Danny Trejo, a reformed ex-con who got into acting in 1985 with a small part in the underrated action classic Runaway Train with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. Trejo is a guy who has lived more lives than cats typically are born with and has always survived to tell the tale, usually on his face. He’s also got that awesome chest tattoo of a rather sexy woman that always seems to make its way into Trejo’s movies. Even if he’s in a scene that doesn’t require him to bare his chest somehow, someway, that tat is making a cameo appearance. Trejo has appeared in most of Robert Rodriguez’s films since 1995’s Desperado, a quasi-remake/sequel to the director’s ultra low-budget 1992 debut El Mariachi. During filming Rodriguez was inspired to create a lead role in a future action epic for Trejo to play, and thus the seed of Machete was prematurely ejaculated, and the waiting began.

The character of Machete showed up in Rodriguez’s family-targeted Spy Kids franchise but it wasn’t until 2007 when Rodriguez teamed with Trejo to create a fake trailer for a Machete feature that opened the director’s epic homage to shameless exploitation films of the 70’s and 80’s, Grindhouse, that he co-directed with Quentin Tarantino, that audiences for the first time were able to see what they’d be in store for should an actual Machete movie ever come to fruition. But for all we knew the trailer was destined to be an elaborate joke, a rapid-fire parody of overheated action flicks whose finest moments were often spoiled by their own trailers. Machete looked to forever exist as a fever dream of blood, boobs, blades, and bullets modern Hollywood had all but driven to the point of extinction, a depressing notion compounded by the box office failure of Grindhouse. Still Rodriguez persisted, at first talking about making the move on a small budget and releasing it direct to video. Then the idea of Machete appearing in his own full-blown big screen adventure became a reality last year when the film finally went into production with Trejo leading one of the most weirdly fascinating casts ever assembled for a movie and Rodriguez sharing directing duties with Ethan Maniquis, a first-time director who got started in the industry as an editor on most of Rodriguez‘s films including Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Planet Terror (his half of Grindhouse), and Shorts. The end result is one of the most entertaining films of the year so far and the last goofy, gory hurrah of an exceptionally lackluster summer movie season.

So basically the Machete of this movie is an ex-Federale, which is sort of a Mexican combo of cop, federal agent, Navy SEAL, Jedi Knight, and other things. The movie opens with Machete and his dead-man-walking-partner preparing to raid the hideout of notorious drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal!) and rescue a female hostage (who’s naked obviously) against the orders of his superior. The operation goes south and Machete finds himself betrayed and left for dead after finding out his beloved wife and daughter were killed by Torrez. Several years later our humble hero is living life off the grid and across the border in Texas working as a day laborer. His days are filled with fist fights for cash, eating tacos procured from comely vendor Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), and being exploited for cheap labor and chump change by rich white assholes, but hey it’s a living. A mysterious man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) notices Machete kicking ass one day and offers him a very interesting job: assassinating Republican senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro….you heard me), a hardliner running for reelection on a tried-and-true platform of stamping out illegal immigration which Booth reasons will put Texas’ economy in a hurt locker should the senator remains in office. Machete is wary of the offer but the monetary reward is too great for him to resist so he reluctantly accepts Booth’s proposal. Taking his position on a rooftop overlooking one of the senator’s campaign trail appearances Machete is poised to take him out but before he can fire one of Booth’s goons (Shea Whigham) on a nearby rooftop shoots him in the shoulder and then puts a bullet in the senator’s leg. Yep, once again our intrepid hero has been set-up, double-crossed, and…you guessed it…left for dead. Now Machete wants vengeance on those who betrayed him and his mission will uncover a vast conspiracy involving the senator, Booth, a group of uber-patriotic border vigilantes led by Lt. Von Johnson (played by….Don Johnson), hitman-for-hire Osiris Ampanpour (Tom Savini), sexy federal agent Sartana (Jessica Alba), Booth’s trouble-making daughter April (Lindsay Lohan), and a immigrant revolutionary group called The Network, and its elusive leader She.

As a movie Machete, which Rodriguez co-wrote with his cousin Alvaro, is a weird beast indeed, an action movie that’s more like a really violent comedy most of the time. I had a great time watching it but Rodriguez and Maniquis’ film gave me a lot more laughs than thrills. It’s a sensory experience, cinematic junk food for adults with a slight case of arrested development. People like me, and maybe even you. Machete is packed to the nines with over-the-top violence, absurd amounts of blood and gore, gloriously gratuitous nudity, sledgehammer-subtle political commentary, and enough scenery chewing to make every major actor in this movie look like a monster from a 1960s Japanese sci-fi movie fighting for supremacy in the smoldering ruins of Tokyo. Coming less than a month after another shameless and awesome action fest The Expendables, Machete launches like a rocket from frame one and never lets up until the end credits roll. I had high hopes for this movie since I’m fan of Rodriguez’s movies but when the first official trailer (not the tongue-in-cheek “May Day” trailer that took pot shots at Arizona’s then-recently passed “Papers Please” law) went online a few months ago it didn’t inspire a lot of hope. The trailer made the movie look like a crappy DTV action flick I wouldn’t see unless it was a cheap video store rental, and knowing Rodriguez’s work as I did this was not encouraging. Fortunately the case just turned out to be a poorly-assembled trailer because the movie is, for the most part, a pure intoxicating blast of celluloid insanity.

With each of his movies (with the exception of The Faculty, which was based on a script by then-prolific writer Kevin Williamson, and Sin City, an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Dark Horse Comics series) Robert Rodriguez, who also recently produced Predators (a movie I had problems with but enjoy regardless), is building a movie version of a interconnected comic book universe where the characters are larger than life archetypes not far removed from superheroes and each film could almost be taking place before, after, or during another. It’s no surprise that Machete first began brewing in the director’s fertile, culture-saturated imagination as he was filming Desperado, a spiritual prequel in which Danny Trejo played a blade-wielding assassin who could be Machete’s brother or cousin, and that the fake trailer first appeared before Planet Terror in the Grindhouse line-up. Planet, one of my personal favorite Rodriguez features, took the director’s fixations on monosyllabic Latino heroes, gorgeous and tough-talking women, and computer-enhanced bloodshed to unparalleled (among Rodriguez’s films) heights. It wouldn’t shock me if the events of Planet Terror were happening in the same timeframe as Machete or even a future Spy Kids sequel. Looking at this movie we can see what Machete does in his spare time when he’s not helping out pint-sized secret agents. It’s fun to consider the possibilities. However I’ve never been a fan of Rodriguez’s decision to switch from shooting on film to high-definition digital video as a lot of major filmmakers have done in recent years, either flirting with the format (Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget indie experiments) or going all out with it (Michael Mann’s past few features, which now seem better suited to home viewing as a result). I understand the reasoning for Rodriguez going digital as it’s faster, cheaper, and more in tune with his experimental, often improvisational aesthetic, but it also makes him films seem even more like dashed-off products shot from scripts he cobbled together from random ideas he scribbled on cocktail napkins. Plus the digital film doesn’t do a good job concealing the visual effects work which ultimately comes off looking like it belongs in an Xbox game. I’m going to stop there before I go off on another rant about how much I hate CGI blood and gore.

The direction by Rodriguez and Maniquis admirably keeps the action moving at a clip from the chaotic opening sequence that has our craggy hero expecting a few good kills and some easy heroics but instead getting bombarded with betrayal and tragedy. Exploitation trailers of the ’60s and ’70s were infamous for jamming every conceivable money shot in the actual film into the trailer and the fake Machete preview satirically upheld that fine cinematic tradition but although the Machete movie was obviously constructed around the scenes shot for the Grindhouse clip Rodriguez and Maniquis manage to goose their clunkily-assembled narrative with a few additional surprises, and some of you may get a serious kick out of a pistol-packing Lohan in a nun’s habit or a final battle in which Machete and the “Network” take on Von Jackson’s border vigilantes in low riders pimped out into literal killing machines. It’s all so silly but it works. Rodriguez’s band Chingon provides the soundtrack, including a ’70s porn-style funky lovemaking riff every time Machete is about to get it on with one of the movie’s multitude of hot babes (moments which are thankfully left off camera). There’s an amusing running gag where Machete occasionally confronts Booth’s bodyguards but goes out of his way to not kill them, much to their appreciation, and another reoccurring bit has Torrez‘s sword making the sound the Six Million Dollar Man makes when he jumps whenever it‘s unsheathed. Fans of discreet almost-nudity will enjoy seeing Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan teasingly stripped to the nines without ever going the full monty, but I sure as hell didn’t.

The cast is the filmmakers’ best asset here and Machete was blessed with a damn good one. This is Danny Trejo’s movie first and foremost and he knocks it out of the park and then some with a performance that skirts the edges of iconic and depends more on the actor’s imposing physical presence than his gift for delivering dialogue. Trejo has given some good performances before but playing Machete is a rather thankless job. All he has to do is show up and kick tons of ass. Trejo’s playing a legend here, not a three-dimensional character, and he does magnificently. The rest of the cast seem to be having a ball playing their larger-than-life characters without an ounce of subtlety. Robert DeNiro is way funnier and livelier playing the racist senator than he’s been in years (imagine Max Cady as a faux macho politico), as is Steven Seagal doing his cheesiest Mexican routine as the evil drug lord behind everything like a tanned and bloated Emperor Papaltine. Don Johnson is ever reliable as the self-righteous Von Johnson, hiding behind a Stetson and dark sunglasses. Cheech Marin reprises his role from the Grindhouse trailer as Machete’s shotgun-handy brother, who has renounced his violent past to become a priest, and gets some good action and a few funny one-liners. Jessica Alba is also better than she normally is as the cool-headed ICE agent caught between both sides of the same fucked dilemma. Shea Whigham and Tom Savini both make for a good pair of psychotic goons with Savini’s character getting the best introduction via a cheese ball TV commercial that advertises his skills as an assassin. Rodriguez’s nieces Electra and Elise Avellan (the “Crazy Babysitter Twins” from Planet Terror) show up as a couple of sexy nurses helping our hero in a pinch, as does Rodriguez’s real-life physician Felix Sabates (another Planet holdover) once again playing “Doc Felix”. Lindsay Lohan gives a decent show as the troubled April but her performance isn’t anything spectacular that’s going to overshadow her recent legal troubles. Fans of the Spy Kids movies will get a kick out of seeing grown-up Daryl Sabara as a member of the Network. The best performances are given by Michelle Rodriguez as Luz and Jeff Fahey as Booth. Both actors get a bit more dimension in their characters than the other inhabitants of Machete’s violent adventures. Rodriguez gets to remind us what she can do when she’s not just playing a stereotypical tough chick and Fahey is allowed to expand on his role as the principal villain in the original Machete trailer by playing Booth as an oily political fixer with a frenzied family life who spends chunks of his free time cleaning up April’s screw-ups without soiling the reputation of Senator McLaughlin.

Machete is a good old-fashioned blast of politically incorrect fun that will entertain you for an hour-and-a-half before you snap back into reality and wonder why.

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