[3 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
God bless him, but Robert Rodriguez still doesn’t quite know what exploitation really is. He’s so wrapped up in the deliberate drive-in experience circa 1973 that he mistakes everything that’s loud, dumb, and gratuitous as being synonymous with the grindhouse. While nothing can be further from the truth (just ask all the skin merchants and flesh peddlers who turned the nudie cutie into a hot commodity in the pre-Peace era), he still wants to try and reintroduce the sleazy subgenre to post-millennial movie audiences.
His latest overdose of breasts, blood, and bad-asses is the Danny Trejo starring vehicle Machete. Based around a joke trailer from the original QT/RobRod homage from a few years back, it’s yet another overdose of action, attitude, and attempted camp. Just as he did with Planet Terror, Rodriguez tries but fails to fully understand the elements that made the exploitation experience so seminal. Instead his mishmash homage is a combination of ‘80s excess, direct to video horror gore, and just about any other insane idea that crosses his fevered brain. But as for it being a true throwback to a pure passion pit dynamic, this revenge flick has a lot to learn.
We begin by seeing how Machete, a former Mexican Federale, became a bitter, angry killer. When drug lord Torrez wipes out his entire family, he makes it his calling to bring down the dapper Don once and for all. Fast forward three years and Machete is in Texas, trying to infiltrate the illegal alien underground known as ‘The Network’. He hopes that local taco truck owner Luz can direct him to “She”, the charismatic leader that controls the immigrant population. In the meantime, he is hired by businessman Michael Benz. The job - kill incumbent State Senator John McLaughlin. As a rabid conservative working to build an electrified fence along the border, some see him as a savior. But we soon discover his connection to redneck vigilante Von Stillman as well as a complicated conspiracy that brings Torrez back into the picture.
With its all-star, slightly below the A/B-list cast and wanton desire to be as outrageous and offensive as it can, Machete has all the makings of a crackpot crowd pleaser, a rollercoaster ride of gonzo gratuity and stunt company craziness. It’s a manic mofo of an experience, a sometimes sloppy social commentary which pits the disenfranchised and the non-documented against the fat cats and the easily Establishment. Rodriguez, making good on his promise to turn his Grindhouse teaser into a full blown experience, doesn’t always hit the right retro beats. While nostalgic in nature, Machete is the kind of movie that needed the 21 Century in order to work. The political bent may be nothing more than burlesque, but the rest of the plot centers on our current tenuous Tea Party propagandizing.
Indeed, many in the audience will be confused as to whether or not to laugh or cry over Robert DeNiro’s Sen. John McLaughlin and his “ship ‘em all back” outlook. It is such an unfocused portrait of the modern Neo-Con, and yet Rodriguez makes sure to drive the foggy point home over and over again. There are odd moments in Machete where the movie leaves the ass-kicker with an agenda designs to show day workers, dishwashers, and other members of the hidden labor force harrumphing over the ditzy dogma being spewed. Oddly enough, the often insightful script does get its point across. While the arguments are sometimes more than obvious (“we go the jobs you don’t want to…”) Rodriguez finds a way to dumb them down and deliver.
Luckily, his actors can more or less sell this mannered medicine oil. For his part, Trejo is doing little more than trading on his ex-con cool past, letting his brilliantly lined face and inferno fireplug facade do almost all the heavy lifting. Machete has about two pages of dialogue total in the film, and it speaks volumes for the character stud that he makes every line count. In fact, no one other than Trejo could play this part, Rodriguez so convinced of the aura he gives off that, with someone else in the lead, Machete would just fall flat. Equally important to the mix is Jeff Fahey. He’s the real villain here, missing the Max Cady lite lilt of DeNiro or the ham on hokiness of Steve Seagal’s barrel bellied turn as Torrez. No, the former ‘80s B-movie idol is in on the camp, but he still delivers the same sinister slow burn edge as his cold killer counterpart.
Indeed, most of the supporting players get their hectic hero moment and then are tossed aside so that Trejo and Fahey can face off. For her part, Michelle Rodriguez is a wonderful anchor of reality. While working with “the Network” to help illegals, she’s a perfect secret super heroine. Similarly, Cheech Marin does a terrific job of playing Machete’s priest brother, a man dedicated to God but willing to put the smack down when needed. Along the way, Jessica Alba is impressive as a US Immigration Agent trying to decipher Machete’s purpose, Tom Savini is hilarious as a web-based hired assassin, and Lindsay Lohan mocks her tabloid tendencies as Fahey’s sex and drug-fueled daughter. Even Don Johnson’s take on a wicked white supremacist feels half serious, half slaptsick.
When you add in the ample violence (which is sure to be ramped up to unrated proportions come mandatory “director’s cut” DVD time) and the over the top action scenes, Machete makes its case as major escapist entertainment. Yet there is always something about Rodriguez - here giving his longtime editor Ethan Maniquis a co-directing credit - that seems less than fully realized. From his desire to balance hyperactive genre work (Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) with Saturday matinee era children’s films (Spy Kids, Shorts) to the on-again, off-again nature to many of his projects, he’s only really delivered on truly great film: the still waiting for a sequel Sin City. Machete is perhaps his most accomplished film since that brilliant Frank Miller adaptation. It may not be good exploitation, but its great schlock - and for now, that will suffice.