Machete – Review


His blade may be sharp, but his movie is dull

At times you have to wonder if Robert Rodriguez has a split personality. When it comes to the projects he directs, they boil down to two categories: kid friendly and adults only. His 1992 debut, El Mariachi, helped to usher in the ‘90s renaissance of independent cinema, and his book, Rebel Without a Crew, was an inspiring read for many aspiring filmmakers. Over the last eighteen years, he’s given us a trilogy about a mariachi who packs more than an extra set of guitar strings in his guitar case; a trilogy about a pair of pint-sized James Bonds. He has even done mainstream horror with vampires – before they had “Team” identifiers – and horror involving faculty members. And of course there’s Sin City, a film that was as visually stunning as it was star-studded.

Robert Rodriguez also loves him some exploitation cinema, and in 2007 he collaborated with friend Quentin Tarantino on Grindhouse, a double feature vanity project that people either got or they didn’t. Actually, Rodriguez’s feature, Planet Terror, was the more receptive of two, because of its campy, people vs. zombie-like creatures plot. When shown in theaters, the film was preceded by a faux trailer about a Mexican Federale named “Machete.” Audiences were so receptive that Rodriguez would take the trailer and make a feature-length film of the same name.

However, extended to a 105-minute running time Machete is clunky and uneven despite its free-wheeling attitude and cartoonish violence, At least the lithe femmes sex up the screen be it serving tacos, exercising with a Wii, or dressed as a nun.

In the ‘70s, exploitation movies were a sign of the times and stuck a finger to the establishment. Though with a $25 million budget Machete seems to try too hard to be anti-establishment, even with its revolutionary and political subtext. Border security and illegal immigration are hot topics in the news cycle, but when one of the characters declares, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” you may want to make sure nobody’s jumping a shark in the background.

The tongue-in-cheek manner of the subtext is done with relative aplomb with unscrupulous villains like Von (Don Johnson), a sadistic border enforcer who patrols the Rio Grande border for illegals, and shooting some without provocation. Joining him in the act is Sen. McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), a Texas legislator who loves to stir voters’ fears against an impending Mexican invasion.

Take out the shooting without provocation and it could be easy to misconstrue these two as heroes. Ah, but this is Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Marniquis’s Mexplotation movie. Audiences are meant to root for immigrants who come to America illegally, because the process already in place is a “broken system.” When the climax happens at the end and Mexicans rise up against their oppressors the reaction will tend to favor one-half of the crowd more than the other. But I suspect there will be those who are on the other side of the immigration debate who will get caught up in the moment and deliver a fist pump to the air. Conversely, he may look to his left or right before doing the maneuver.

Standing in the middle of the two sides is Machete (Danny Trejo), a former Mexican Federale who lives up to his name before the opening reel can get to the first cigarette burn. Using a variety of blades he subdues his opponents in manic fashion. The CGI blood is aplenty, much to the chagrin of special effects and makeup artist Tom Savini, who has a cameo as a hitman. The prologue has Machete witnessing the murder of his wife and barely escaping his own death at the hands of Torrez, a Mexican drug lord played by very American Steven Seagal – you can tell by his accent that appears, disappears and reappears again.

The story flashes forward three years and Machete finds himself the right man in the wrong place at the right time. The wrong place happens to be the city of Austin and the right time is a staged assassination attempt on McLaughlin’s life at the behest of a local Texas magnate (Jeff Fahey).

In between the many over-the-top sequences – unabashed in its bloodshed – involving Machete narrowly escaping death is a parade of co-stars like Jessica Alba as an ICE agent, Michelle Rodriguez (who leads an underground movement to protect undocumented Mexicans), and Lindsay Lohan in a role that stretches her acting talent. (Not really, she’s cast a drug addict who wants to share her sexiness over the Internet, because, as she puts it, she knows what her “audience wants.”)

Danny Trejo has been steadily employed since 1985, but Machete marks his first starring vehicle. Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships on her face alone, but Trejo’s face stops you dead in your tracks, making you wonder what the hell happened to that guy? As the antihero he plays the role straight while other actors would have hammed it up. Nevertheless, he has one signature line in a movie that’s cup should be running over with cheesy one-liners.

During the opening scene it is evident that Rodriguez and Maniquis used a similar effect like the Grindhouse movies where imperfections were created digitally. But after Machete’s introduction, the imperfections are gone. If the intent was to continue the tradition of that double feature they should have gone all the way. Instead, while it may look like a cheap B-movie by a producer who cut costs because he lost most of the production budget at the race track, it cost about $20 million too much.

Director: Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis
Notable Cast: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan, Tom Savini
Writer(s): Robert Rodriguez, Alvaro Rodriguez

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