R0BTRAIN’s Badass Cinema: Machete-Fest Part 1

A lot to get to this week, but first, a little catch-up…

Badass of the Month – August 2010

Lee Christmas, played by Jason Statham – The Expendables

This is the first year I’ve started doing a running tally of BOTM, and while we’ve had some months with clear cut winners, a lot of times it’s been tough picking the best of the best. For August the task was no exception, and in fact may have been the toughest month to pick so far overall, because there were so many factors at play and so many candidates all stemming from one movie; The Expendables. Nearly everyone here made a huge case for themselves by having some outstanding moment of kickassery, whether it was axe-kicking a man to death, killing pirates with all manners of weapons, showing some sort of superhuman combat skill, or just exuding a natural charisma which precluded them from being defeated in any way.

Sly’s Barney Ross leads this crew and is insanely efficient at making bad guys exit this world, Randy Couture’s Toll Road is unstoppable in one-on-one combat, Jet Li’s Yin Yang is second to none in the film’s martial arts sequences, Terry Crews literally has a blast as Hale Caesar, and Dolph Lundgren’s Gunner Jensen likes stomping men’s faces in. To me though, none of them though seemed to make a stronger impression than Jason Statham as Lee Christmas. Statham has dedicated his career to action cinema, and in a way I feel like all of his roles up to this point have been leading up to Christmas, who shines in every aspect of the movie he’s included in, whether it’s the movie’s comedic/buddy aspects, kung fu fights, shoot-outs, knife fights, or just plain beating the snot out of woman-hating scumbags. Stallone obviously chose the film as an opportunity for Statham to shine, and he takes the opportunity whenever onscreen, giving us his best action role since the first two Transporter films.

Now, while I’m still basking in the glow of The Expendables’ success, I can’t help but give it up for what was one of my most anticipated films of the year; Machete. While The Expendables sated my appetite for violent action epics, which have always been my bread and butter, the new Robert Rodriguez creation looked to scratch my itch for the seedier parts of the genre, and that’s exactly what it managed to do. I love me a quality/trashy action picture, and Machete hit me in the spot that Coffy, The Streetfighter, and Stone Cold have always managed to do, making me perfectly happy while giving me the guiltiest of pleasures.

Now, as usual I couldn’t just watch this one movie by itself and be satisfied. As I will tend to do, I decided to have my own mini-marathon, packing a week with as many Machete-related flicks as possible leading up to the big event. So if you’re hungry for some gratuitous Tex-Mex insanity, then here are all the flicks I’d go with.

Rob’s Machete-Fest!

Machete Starring Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Don Johnson, and Robert De Niro. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis.

This one was a big one for me on a lot of levels. First up, I’ve been a big fan of Robert Rodriguez for a long time, and after the lukewarm opening weekend for this movie, I hope Machete still gets looked upon favorably by the powers that be. Though I loved it, Grindhouse was a bomb with audiences, and even Predators, which he produced, was only a mild hit. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure Machete will recoup its small budget, and will no doubt become at least a cult hit on home video (both DVD and Blu-ray), but it would have been nice if it had made a bigger splash. Rodriguez is a director with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and he’s a guy that has always managed to stay in control because his films are insane but always end up cheap and profitable. If those profits keep on a downward trend, then movies like this one will have a hard time finding a studio that will keep making them.

Let’s face it, at the outset the idea of making a full length movie based on a fake trailer that was attached to a box office bomb doesn’t exactly seem like a sure thing. If you add the fact that the proposed lead actor in this movie is a 66-year old action star who has never headlined a picture before, the film’s main villain would be an action star whose last theatrical release was Half-Past Dead, and some retroactive hot-button political issues would be included in the movie’s storyline, then you’d think an exec would have to be crazy to greenlight this project. Thankfully, Rodriguez’s clout and track record is good enough that something this crazy ends up not only getting made, it usually ends up extremely entertaining and making a bit of money in the process.

A lot of that has to do with the film-maker himself, who along with co-director Ethan Maniquis have constructed an exploitation flick that manages to walk a fine line of ridiculous Grindhouse movie and out and out spoof. Much like Black Dynamite did last year, Machete sends up its genre while still becoming a great example of it. It’s honestly a tough movie to critique on some levels, because yes, there’s some shoddy acting and directing at times, but to some degree that seems to be on purpose.

I do think the movie has some serious pacing issues and there’s a part of me that would have liked this to be as earnest as The Expendables or something more like Death Wish, but it’s hard to deny just how many times the flick is hilariously funny. This goes especially for sequences featuring Nimrod Antall as a henchman trying to keep a small crew of bad guys loyal to their corrupt boss when they seem to not agree with his political views or methods. Watching so many movies, including this one, where villains would prefer to just kill their own henchmen rather than deal with failure or incompetence, I love seeing the other side of that relationship.

While that sort of humor is on the self aware side, it doesn’t really diminish how funny the flick is, and is really indicative of just how over the top the movie can be in pretty much all aspects. The film relishes in people swinging from entrails, decapitations by the dozen, and gags such as a howler moment involving an explosion and a meat thermometer. The best part is too, that Rodriguez shoots all this action with immediacy without having to resort to bad editing or too many close-ups. He does tend to rely too heavily on CGI as compared to practical effects, but the staging of all the film’s action is very well choreographed and thought out for maximum impact. Machete is a manic experience that viscerally still works as an action film, even though the jokes tend to never cease. In other words, while you’re busting a gut, Trejo’s Machete is busy busting and ripping out guts of his own.

What Rodriguez and his team really seem to do well too, is build up the legend of the picture’s title character. Like they were trying to do with the Mariachi character in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Danny Trejo’s Machete gets the full myth making treatment here, either being featured in scenes or being talked about with reverence by others. Trejo seems to be having a blast here also, from the ridiculous action sequences to referring to himself in the third person. If you miss that sort of Charles Bronson-Death Wish 3 sort of hero vigilante, then this guy is the cure for what ails you.

The rest of the cast seems to fair just as well. Jessica Alba gives her usual stilted performance, but again, it’s tough to know where the bad acting ends and the satire begins. Michelle Rodriguez has never been hotter, Robert De Niro and Tom Savini are playing for the cheap seats and I like Don Johnson as the sleazy, out of control border vigilante. Even Lindsay Lohan isn’t bad here for what she does, and the role is actually one of the characters feels like a naturally transplanted character from an exploitation film. More than maybe anyone else in the cast though, I love Jeff Fahey as Michael Booth, the slimy Karl Rove-like character pulling all the strings the entire time. Fahey is hilarious, but seems to take this whole enterprise very seriously, which adds a bit of depth that I’m not sure anyone else in the cast has.

Lastly, it has to be said that I loved seeing Steven Seagal back on the big screen. The Aikido master has had a rough year with various scandals, which in turn has caused problems with his TV show, but all that seemed to go away as he walked into the movie for the first time with his samurai sword and weird Mexican accent. Never having portrayed a villain before, I was a bit skeptical, but I doubt this will be the last bad guy we’ll get from Seagal. Every moment the guy has onscreen is electric. Yeah, he’s packed on a few pounds, but he’s no less fun to watch than he ever was.

Machete is one of the best times I’ve had in the theater all year. As a double feature with either The Expendables or Piranha 3-D, this would make an amazing pseudo-Grindhouse-sequel, and I would love to see another entry in this series as soon as possible. With a few tweeks, this could seriously be another Death Wish series or at least be as awesome as the films Machete is trying to emulate. With so many lousy franchises out there, it would be nice to be able to look forward to a regular installment of bad-ass cinema.

Grindhouse Starring: Danny Trejo, Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Rebel Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehne, Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell,Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Rose McGowan, and Sydney Tamiia Poitier. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

Featuring the fake trailer that started all this Machete madness, Grindhouse is a rip-roaring good time that runs over three hours with no let up at all. Perhaps audiences didn’t know what they were getting or maybe just didn’t want to sit through a three hour niche-movie, but the flick’s box office failure is one that still befuddles me considering just how entertaining this film is. The fake trailer for Machete is an absolute standout moment in the movie, packing in all the laughs, action and nudity of your standard exploitation film into three minutes of riotously funny footage. Thankfully, I think the full length movie actually lives up to this early short version. Of course, Machete is only one of four trailer spoofs attached to Grindhouse, each one a little slice of exploitation heaven.

Now if Machete ends up doing well enough to make a profit, Eli Roth has to make Thanksgiving right? Looking like the most epic slasher film ever, Thanksgiving boasts some of the best jokes of the whole picture, on top of some amazing gore. This thing looks like it could write itself, and Roth does seem to have a deep love for horror, so this looks like a no-brainer. Don’t looks like it would need more work to flesh it out, but at the same time this trailer is some sort of masterpiece. An orgy of British and Euro-horror tropes, Edgar Wright’s Don’t reminds me of cult haunted house films such as The Legend of Hell House combined with the sort of depravity of Dario Argento’s best work. Werewolf Women of the S.S. may be the least of all the trailers, but would I go see it if it was made? Hell Yes. Combining monster horror and the pulp Nazi subgenre is something I can always get behind, especially if Nicolas Cage ends up playing Fu Manchu.

Did I mention you also get three hours of exploitation movie awesomeness?

Planet Terror rocks the house by keeping its gags nonstop while making you gag on its ridiculous puss-filled gore. The movie has all the hallmarks of Rodriguez’s best work; ridiculously bad-ass dialogue, inventive gun play, and blood-spurting fight scenes. I never thought I’d buy Freddie Rodriguez as a killing machine, but his macho persona works, especially paired with Rose McGowan’s raw sexuality, which is a theme Rodriguez has liked since making a duo of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek in Desperado. Mostly what I love about the movie though, is that it’s just flat out hilarious. Everybody’s just here to have a good time from Michael Biehn to Bruce Willis, and the energy is just infectious. Rodriguez is a director that can turn a B-movie into Grade A popcorn, and Planet Terror is a terrific example of that.

Quentin Tarantino‘s Death Proof goes to show why CGI can never replace good old-fashioned stunt work. Taking itself more seriously, Tarantino’s slasher/road rage movie is half Friday the 13th, half Mad Max and the results are fascinating and awesome. I loved this upon first viewing, and revisiting the film recently gave me further perspective on what QT was really trying to do here. Like all of his best work, the movie is a hodgepodge of everything he loves, tied together with interesting dialogue, pop culture references and primeval violence. He lulls you to sleep and then punches you in the face with the best car stunts since The Road Warrior. Lastly, when will Kurt Russell get more work like this? Seriously, the guy is outstanding and charming and cowardly as Stuntman Mike, and I can’t wait till someone is able to utilize him like this again.

Anyway you look at it, Grindhouse is an amazing time at the movies, and remains one of the most awesome and befuddling failed cinema experiments ever attempted.

Marked for Death, Starring: Steven Seagal and Keith David. Directed by Dwight H. Little.

I’ve talked about this one before, but I wanted to throw it in because it features an early confrontation between Seagal and Danny Trejo, plus its one of the more entertaining pictures from Seagal’s heyday. This isn’t at the top of my favorite Seagal flicks (that would be Out for Justice or Under Siege) but it’s difficult to resist this combination of buddy movie/vigilante picture and supernatural guilty pleasure. Taking out an army of Jamaican drug dealers, Seagal, along with crime fighting partner and local football coach Keith David, have to contend with everything from machine guns to black magic. Is this a masterpiece? No. Is it awesome? Yes!

Alright, so next week my list will continue. I’ll see you guys soon.

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