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Non-Review Review: Machete

I really liked Machete. It sounds strange from somebody who was relatively unimpressed with Robert Rodriguez’s contribution to Grindhouse, the lackluster b-movie throwback Planet Terror. I think that Machete works because it’s considerably more obvious in its humour, while still walking through a fairly conventional “exploitation” plot. Although the storyline and characters could easily have come from some dingy shot-on-video-camera b-movie, Rodriguez seems somewhat clearer in his parody here, as if he’s making an intentionally hilarious film, rather than merely trying to create the sense of an unintentionally hilarious film. I think it really works, because it’s everything a film like this should be: it’s gleefully silly, ridiculously violent, hilariously “relevent”, and presented in an insanely over-the-top manner.

Machete don't fold...

The story is built around Danny Trejo’s former federalé, Machete. By the way, it’s not a nickname that an anonymous wandering warrior goes by, it’s actually his birth name. After he watches his family die, and is betrayed by those closest to him, Machete migrates to Texas, where he finds himself tied up in a plot to reelect a sinister State Senator. Betrayed, and left for dead, those conspirators are about to learn that they’ve messed with the wrong Mexican.

And the movie is fun, for lack of a better word. Apparently, Rodriguez came up with the idea for the film when he first met Trejo, who he felt should be “the Mexican Jean-Claude Van Damme.” The director has assembled a fine cast, none of whom seem to be taking the film particularly seriously. Even the role of the Senator, played by Robert DeNiro, was originally offered by Chris Cooper – who apparently passed when he didn’t seem to get the joke. Absolutely everything about the movie is so over-the-top that the audience doesn’t bat an eyelid when Machete leads his followers into a final battle in a fleet of heavily-armed bouncing Low Riders.

Good rep?

There are any number of moments of wonderful absurdity. At one point, Machete manages to steer a car from the backseat through careful application of his machete. (It’s a sequence preceded by the fateful confession from a goon impersonating a police officer, “I didn’t frisk him.”) A doctor is amazed that Machete survived an attempt to kill him, marvelling at the X-rays. “You see where the bullet stopped there?” he asks his nurses. “It was stopped by another bullet that was previously lodged there!” Machete is a man who can free an egg with the heat of his passion, and turn even the most mundane objects into lethal weapons (a weedwhacker at one point).

Then there’s the audacity of the whole plot, the conspiracy that Machete finds himself struggling against. As they discover sinister plans to build an electric border fence, the female agent proclaims, “It all makes sense now. Torres wants to get Senator McLoughlin reelected so he can build a border fence that he can control.” Yes, perfect sense. “Let me see if I am hearing you right,” her superior remarks after hearing her report. “One of the city’s most prominent businessmen, a Texas vigilante, the most notorious drug kingpin of Mexico, and a state senator — are all conspiring to enact stricter immigration laws?”

A cut above the rest?

It’s very silly, but enjoyably so. I especially love the way that Rodriguez mocks the traditional ‘social relevance’ of these sorts of films, making a Mexploitation film about the issue of illegal immigration, but putting the moral so wonderfully and obviously out front that it’s cheekily blatant. “As you well know,” on character explains, providing healthy exposition and the movie’s designated quota of topicality, “illegal immigrants like yourself are being forced out of this country in alarming numbers.” Later on, there’s a suitably cheesy moment where an unlikely revolutionary declares, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” I genuinely think that the sheer level of the absurdity of the parody works much better here than it did in Planet Terror.

Of course, the fun doesn’t end with the plotting and dialogue. Rodriguez makes it gleefully aware that we’re meant to be watching a poorly-produced and poorly-directed zero-budget action film. Crowds are generally small (save for the big finale) and the film grain seems to speckle from time-to-time. One of my favourite moments has Machete crawl out from under a bed he very clearly wasn’t under in the long-shot a moment ago; or the fact that every single video-taped playback plays back actual footage from the film (including changing camera angles and quick cuts) rather than showing what the video camera might have actuallyrecorded.

"You're telling me that Mexican dayworker was a goddamn Federalé!?!"

Rodriguez has assembled a wonderful cast for his film. He’s still not quite as skilled as Tarantino is at picking older and iconic actors for somewhat surprising roles. In particular, Steven Segal’s turn as the central bad guy is a fairly massive disappointment. Segal doesn’t give a bombastically bad performance that would be fitting with the film. Instead, he just sort of shows up like he’s looking for his cheque.

It’s a shame, because he’s given some choice cliché lines like, “I own the entire force. And not just here in Mexico. I own the DEA. I own the Marshalls. Why can’t I own you?” In fact, his entire casting would be hilarious if the actor had mustered a little more energy. Just like the decision to put gallons of fake tan on Willem Dafoe in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, there’s something very surreal about asking us to accept Segal as a Mexican drug kingpin.

A cut above the rest?

Similarly, Lindsay Lohan doesn’t necessarily seem to get in the spirit of the film either. In a film like this, it’s easy enough to write off a bad performance as intentional self-parody, but Lohan is just bland. Rodriguez actually does his best here, and manages to somewhat salvage the role, by very obviously using a body double in certain scenes and staging her reveal like he’s meant to be a “very special guest star.” He makes it seem like the film is eternally grateful to have a star of her caliber on board, which plays brilliantly into the whole joke.

The rest of the cast is remarkably solid. Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba have never really impressed me with their range, but they are both wonderfully cheesy here, and seem in on the joke. Don Johnson is effective as a racist vigilante, getting one of the best lines of the film, delivered with utmost gravitas. “I know some people don’t like us,” he states. “They call us vigilantes… but it’s really about vigilance.” The fact that his credit is “introducing…” was also hilarious. I genuinely hope that this (and Django Unchained) represents the start of a career resurrection for the actor.

Scoping out a target...

However, for my money, the best member of the cast is Jeff Fahey. He seems to really channel the “so bad it’s great”, with his deep raspy voice and over-wrought delivery. It helps that the movie only really kicks into overdrive with his arrival, as the music feels like it was lifted from a John Carpenter film, and there’s the obligatory “picking your weapons” sequence. The goatee, ponytail and overly-flashy suit also help create the sense that he really belongs in a film like this – as much as Machete himself.

There are a handful of problems, beyond one or two weak performances. In particular, there seem to be several dangling plot threads left unresolved – one in particular involving an assassin hired to kill Machete, played by Tom Savani. The character shows up, says some lines, and then… disappears. Perhaps it was intended to evoke the brutal editing of these sorts of cheap and cheerful slashers, but it does feel remarkably strange.

Bordering on hilarious...

Still, it’s a fun movie. It’s a silly movie. It’s a gleefully over-the-top movie. I really liked it. I can’t help but feel like The Expendables might have worked a little bit better had it been much more like this.

8 Responses

  1. I never intended to see this movie because I guess after Grindhouse (which I really liked), I became a little tired of exploitation-as-homage cinema. I guess I’ll have to check this out now.

    • Careful! I fear we have different taste in cheese (our occasional divergences in movies). Being honest, I didn’t love Grindhouse, because it didn’t seem silly enough for me, if that makes sense – so this might be just a little too goofy.

  2. I tried to get into this movie but it never worked. At every turn I just felt annoyed by the jokes, which just felt forced. It really did feel like what it was – a two minute commercial being dragged out for a feature length runtime trying desperately to make all the cool scenes from the trailer fit in.

  3. Nice share about Machete. He is one of my favorites,

  4. How could you not like a movie with Danny Trejo riding a motorcycle with a chain gun on it? You nailed the movie on the head Darren, a definite riot from beginning to end. I was happy when I found it on DISH online on EPIX page this week, got to watch it a couple times this week after I got off work at DISH. I thought Steven Seagal put into this movie what he has put into almost every movie he has done, not a lot. I was just happy to see him die at the end, its only the second film he has done where he dies, so I enjoyed it, even replaying it and picturing it in every one of his films. Not that I don’t like him, I like to watch his movies and make fun of him, but he still gets money when I do so it works out for both of us.Danny Trejo was outstanding in the movie, the most memorable line for me was “Machete don’t text” then 10 minutes later asked her to help him text. I looked over Lohan’s acting, I think she was just there for some eye candy and she did that part OK until she opened her mouth. This movie was totally over the top and I can only hope that make another and it is even better then this one, maybe two chain guns on the front of the motorcycle. How often can you say you got to see a human intestine used as a rope anyway?

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