Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Whole Enchilada

Of all the fake trailers featured in the Rodriguez/Tarantino double-shot Grindhouse (2007), by far the most enthusiastic reaction was reserved for, well, I'd say it was reserved for Eli Roth's dead-on slasher salute Thanksgiving. But the one that received the second most raves had to be, well, that'd probably be Edgar Wright's hilariously vague Don't. But goddamn it, Rodriguez's Machete trailer, featuring Danny Trejo as the wrong Mexican to fuck with, was way more acclaimed than Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS - but don't quote me on that because I'm still not sure.

Whatever the case, a lot of people dug the shit out of the Machete trailer. What wasn't to like about it, right? Everybody agrees that Trejo is a born bad-ass and the idea of seeing him as a full-fledged action hero, well that's the stuff that grindhouse dreams are made of. Hell, they should've just gone ahead and filmed Machete right then and there, kicked Tarantino's Death-Proof to the curb, and paired the two Rodriguez joints - Planet Terror and Machete - as one Grindhouse fiesta. But, instead, we've had to wait a few years for Machete to get his own film.

Right off the bat, you've got to like Machete at least a little bit just for its cast. To bring together Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Tom Savini, Lindsay Lohan, and Jessica Alba together under one cinematic roof is a commendable act on Rodriguez's part (although I suspect it would feel like a dirty trick if Rob Zombie did the same). Everybody is solid here (except for maybe De Niro who succumbs to his hammier impulses - but no more so than he's done for the last two decades or so). The only problem is that some of these actors - like Don Johnson - just don't have enough to do. That's a bummer but hey, maybe there's a three-hour director's cut of Machete waiting in the wings that will resolve that problem.

Machete's story follows what was already laid out in the Grindhouse trailer, seamlessly incorporating that trailer's footage (and when it isn't seamless, it's intentionally funny). Trejo plays an ex-Mexican Federale who works in Texas as an illegal day laborer since his law enforcement career ended three years earlier after the drug lord known as Torrez (Seagal) killed Machete's family. Unaware of Machete's history, Michael Booth (Fahey) - a crooked business man who's helped sponsor the political ambitions of racist senator John McLaughlin (DeNiro) - hires Machete to assassinate McLaughlin at a campaign rally. Machete reluctantly takes this offer he can't refuse but Machete is only supposed to be a fall guy. When the time comes for Machete to take his shot, another gunman under Booth's employ shoots Machete (going for a head-shot) and McLaughlin as well (but only in the leg). McLaughlin is running his re-election campaign on an anti-immigration platform and after the scary Mexican known as Machete is fingered for the failed assassinate attempt, McLaughlin will be more of a hero to his voter base than ever.

The catch is, this plan will only work if Machete isn't alive to talk to anyone so when he manages to survive his bullet wound and escape, it's time for Booth to direct all his resources towards tying up this loose end. Unfortunately for Booth, Machete has resources of his own. Among his allies are Luz (Rodriguez) a revolutionary posing as a taco truck girl; Padre (Marin), Machete's brother and a man of the cloth; and Sartana (Alba) an immigration officer who comes to learn the errors of following only the letter of the law.

All told, Machete goes down agreeably enough - although what should've been a straight-ahead mission of vengeance, as Machete works his way back to the man who destroyed his life, gets sidetracked by the machinations of Booth and McLaughlin and a lot of talk about the politics of immigration. Rodriguez and his co-writer Álvaro Rodriguez make the misstep of playing it as though Machete only half-asses his way into an opportunity to get back at Torrez rather than having that be the single goal that he was driving towards. The upside is that there's always a gory effect, a humorous gag, or an appealing performer in any scene. Sometimes all three.

Machete is one of those movies that, by rights, shouldn't exist - after all, it's a feature length version of a fake trailer starring Danny Trejo as a one-man Mexi-cutioner. About the only movie less likely to be real would be James Cameron doing a big budget 3-D adaptation of the famed breakfast cereal mascot Franken-berry, with George Clooney as Franken-berry, so the fact that Rodriguez was able to get this film made and in wide release is an endearing feat. And with outrageous scenes such as (SPOILER ALERT!) Savini as an assassin named Osiris literally crucifying Cheech Marin's Padre, everything about Machete is squarely aimed at cult movie junkies; it's a film that - almost to a fault - plays to its base.

Unfortunately, while Planet Terror was a movie that visibly sizzled with Rodriguez's passion - not just for its subject matter of rampaging zombies, but for the conceit of recreating the 'grindhouse' aesthetic - Machete feels far more cooled down. And personally, the retro-posturing just doesn't work for me here. There's a buffer of irony that it creates, like it's a tongue-in-cheek exercise. Intentionally or not, Machete feels like an action movie made for people who want to be allowed to smirk at action movies. At heart, it's to '70s exploitation films what the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson Starsky & Hutch (2004) was to '70s cop shows. That's why I prefer The Expendables. The Expendables is 100% sincere and, for me, that goes a long way towards excusing any faults it may have. Machete might give lip service to the immigration issue but in the whole film there's nothing as heartfelt as the scene in The Expendables where Mickey Rourke relates the story of how he missed a chance to get his soul back.

I'm glad Trejo finally got a much-deserved turn as a leading man but while Trejo himself is the authentic item, Machete comes across like a painstaking fascimile of an action film rather than the real deal.

7 comments:

Bob Ignizio said...

I really loved this movie. I think the socio political message is totally in keeping with the sort of radical politics one finds in seventies blacksploitation movies. I think this is every bit as sincere as 'The Expendables'. Not only that, it juggles its cast of high profile stars much more effectively.

Uranium Willy said...

I will definitely be checking this one out when I can here in China. it will not play the theaters here most likely but a decent pirate DVD should be available soon. I am sure in the big picture there will be flaws but I am up for this one. Thanks...

Bill @ The Uranium Cafe

Jeff Allard said...

Bob, I thought Machete just had a "cover band" feel to it. You know, Rodriguez knows all the chords and he plays them well but it's just a step away from the real thing. I know Rodriguez was boxed into continuing the 'grindhouse' style because Machete is a spin-off of Grindhouse but it kind of wore out its welcome with me.

I agree that its political bent would be right at home in '70s cinema but I didn't think it was dramatized in an interesting way. You've got your cartoonishly evil right wing baddies and then there's the noble left-leaning heroes. And as for its cast, Rodriguez doesn't do badly but while Stallone gave me all I needed to see of, say, Terry Crews in The Expendables (a scene or two and a big moment with a big gun is all that character needed), I was left feeling that some of the Machete crew weren't ultilized enough.

And Willy, this is definitely worth a trip to the theaters. My reservations aside, I'm glad I checked it out.

J.D. said...

If anything I felt that MACHETE was a love letter to the Cannon Films from the 1980s and I almost half-expected Michael Dudikoff to make a cameo appearance.

I agree that the film has that "cover band" feel to it (great description, btw) but it's a pretty impressive cover band! All in all, I had fun and was entertained all the way throughout. It really felt like the film that THE EXPENDABLES was trying to be but couldn't quite pull off.

Jeff Allard said...

J.D., I bet a lot of people would agree with you but I'm all for The Expendables and not so much for Machete. Not to say I disliked Machete - it was fun, just nothing for me to celebrate. To me, Machete is a comedy first and an action movie second and that approach wouldn't have made me happy with The Expendables.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Great to see two different takes on Machete. The juxtaposition between your review and JDs is interesting. I enjoyed them both.

You have me looking forward to The Expendables as much as he has me looking forward to Machete. Nice work!

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Fantatic - maybe you'll end up loving both movies!