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Josh Reviews Machete!

September 15th, 2010
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Boy, it’s hard to believe this movie really exists!  Originating as a fake trailer from the start of Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, Grindhouse (FINALLY coming to DVD/Blu-Ray!  Thanks the gods!), Mr. Rodriguez and his team at Troublemaker Studios have expanded the trailer into a full-length film.  Machete is just as much crazy, silly, violent exploitation fun as the original trailer promised.

In a pretty fascinating game of connect-the-dots, Mr. Rodriguez and co-screenwriter Alvaro Rodriguez have created a story that somehow includes pretty much every shot and scene from the original fake trailer.  For me, a big part of the fun of the film was watching to see how and when all of those scenes, that were never originally intended to connect, have all been incorporated into the movie.

Danny Trejo kills in the title role as a tough Mexican who shouldn’t be f–ked with.  Trejo’s Machete is one of the most unflappable characters I’ve ever seen on film — the man seems to take everything in stride, whether that be a confrontation with a crowd of armed bad-guys or an opportunity to sleep with the wife and daughter of an evil politician.  The performance is hilarious in its complete dead-pan affect.  Jeff Fahey and Cheech Marin also reprise their roles from the Grindhouse trailer.  Fahey plays the politician who hires and then foolishly double-crosses Machete, while Marin is Machete’s priest brother who’s not afraid to pick up a shotgun and kick some ass when necessary.  Both are phenomenal.  Fahey is all smarm and sleeze, whereas Marin brings a surprising amount of warmth to his small role.

In fleshing out the story from the original trailer, Mr, Rodriguez and co. created a number of new characters, and they filled those roles with a wonderfully ludicrous assemblage of actors.  Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez play the two tough-and-amazingly-beautiful women who find themselves in orbit of Machete.  Alba is Sartana, a cop whose job is to bust illegal aliens, whereas Rodriguez is Luz, the head of “the Network,” a secret organization set up to help Mexicans enter the country and find work.  I’m not a huge fan of Jessica Alba.  I think Rodriguez uses her well in his films — she was perfect in Sin City, and certainly has some opportunities to look stunning and crack some heads here — but the scenes where she’s called upon to deliver some serious, heart-felt dialogue fell a little flat to me.  (I do blame the script for some clunky lines, as much as her performance.)  But Michelle Rodriguez is just phenomenal (perfectly cast) as Luz — she’s fun and tough and vulnerable all in one.  And let me just say that the costume designer who created her outfit for the climax of the film deserves a substantial raise.

OK, that cast doesn’t sound too crazy so far.  But that’s because I haven’t mentioned Robert DeNiro as a far-right Senator (I cannot BELIEVE that Robert DeNiro is in this movie!!) up to all sorts of no-goodness; Linday Lohan as the hard-partying often-naked daughter of Jeff Fahey’s character; Don Johnson as a border-patrolling vigilante (one of my favorite jokes in the film is the “introducing Don Johnson” credit in the opening credits) and, of course, Steven Seagal as the drug-lord Torrez who has been Machete’s nemesis for many years.  All of the cast (including many other talented actors I haven’t named) seem to be having a great time, totally embracing the silliness of the concept without ever winking at the camera.  Instead, they play things straight and chew all the scenery in sight, which of course makes everything even funnier.

If I have any complaint with the film, it’s that (echoing a comment I made in my recent review of The Other Guys), the joke of the film wears a little thin after the first hour, and things seem to drag a bit in the film’s second half.  I found the story-telling to be pretty choppy as the film progressed.  Rather than one scene leading logically into the next — as is the case in the best action films — I had a hard time following exactly why certain characters were doing what, and how one character would be in one place with one character in one scene, and suddenly someplace totally different interacting with other characters in the next scene, without any transition.  Now, it’s hard to fault the film for this, since the whole idea of this sort of grindhouse-homage film is to basically create a “just the good parts” version of a film — leaving out the boring exposition and cutting straight to the nudity and the carnage.  But I think I can legitimately point out that there are too many scenes in the second half of Machete that don’t feature Machete.  I just didn’t find myself that interested in the goings-on of the Network or Jessica Alba’s continuing investigations or all the scenes where Steven Seagal bosses people around from a video screen.  But this is a minor complaint, and I really was quite thoroughly engaged with all of the crazy mayhem in the film from start to finish.

I don’t think there’s too much point in spending a lot of time discussing the politics of the film.  Just as I can enjoy a movie with an Arab or a Christian or a Jew or someone of any religion or nationality as the villain, without thinking that the filmmakers necessarily believe that ALL Arabs or Christians or Jews or whoever are evil, I don’t think we need to dwell too long on the illegal immigration issue when considering Machete.  Yes, I would imagine that Mr. Rodriguez and many of his collaborators have strong feelings on the issue, and I don’t think it’s exactly an accident that a filmmaker from Austin, Texas has created a movie in which the border-patrol folks and the politicians are the villains, and the Mexican day-laborers are the heroes.  But, on the other hand, a film that features a character swinging out a window while using another character’s intestines as a rope is one that can’t really be considered a “political” film.  I might be able to draw some assumptions about Mr. Rodriguez’s politics from this film, but that’s all they would be: assumptions.  And one way or the other, those assumptions don’t affect my enjoyment of Machete one way or the other.

(I will note, here, that I did get quite a laugh out of the sequences in the film where we see all of the Mexicans in “the Network” passing messages to one another.  These scenes seem to depict a world in which every Mexican is involved in this shadowy, connected organization.  It reminds me of the scenes in Live and Let Die when James Bond drives through Harlem, and we see every black man or woman he passes suddenly speaking into hidden phones to pass the message that he’s coming — as if every single African American in Harlem were all involved in the villain’s criminal enterprise!!  The difference, of course, is that the Bond film played those scenes fairly straight, meaning that when watched today it’s pretty offensive, and probably the most troubling anachronism of the whole Bond film series.  Whereas Machete plays those scenes with a bit of a knowing nudge, sort-of a wink, I think, at some people’s perceptions of Mexicans.)

This is not a film for everyone, no sirree — it is unabashedly and unashamedly filled with violence and T&A.  But I got a real kick out of it.  Will a feature-length version of Don’t or Thanksgiving (the two other fake trailers from Grindhouse) be far behind??  Heh heh heh…

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