(2010) directors Ethan Maniquis, Robert Rodriguez
Evolved from a fake trailer that was released with the Grindhouse (2007) double feature, Machete is comically over-the-top from top to bottom. Planet Terror (2007), Robert Rodriguez’s portion of the Grindhouse entity, the film concept is a throwback to the 1970’s-1980’s action/exploitation films. Machete‘s take on the genre is an action film with a rough and tumble Mexican hero, not exactly a Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris type, but the immensely rugged Danny Trejo, whose weathered face and rock-solid build are an antithesis to the concept of a dashing, handsome lead. Trejo may be no Brad Pitt, but he’s a compelling actor, and his pissed-as-hell glare and growl of a voice do indeed create a new and interesting figure as a movie hero.
But Machete traces back more to Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) and Desperado (1995) as well as El Mariachi (1992). These films are all action films with a strong Nationalist and cultural pride of both Mexico and Mexican-American identity. It’s an odd mixture of strongly themed political statements (the film deals heavily with illegal immigration and the issues surrounding it) and humor (among the united Latinos in the film’s finale, there are many bouncing low riders and even a guy pushing an ice cream cart). While Rodriguez shared directorial credit on this film with Ethan Maniquis, he co-wrote and co-produced the film as well, and it bears all the marks of his style.
Also part of the film’s self-awareness is the way that the villains are populated by a number of B-movie action stars of the 1980’s and 1990’s including most prominently Steven Seagal, but also Jeff Fahey and Don Johnson. As well as Robert De Niro. The inclusion of Seagal in particular seems to summon the spirit of the straight-up B-movie action film, to which Machete insistently attaches its roots. But it’s only the opening sequence that channels the Grindhouse “distressed” film stock and jump-cuts to suggest an old beat-up reel that’s played in many a drive-in theater. The rest of the film forgoes that relatively cheap gag/aesthetic. Oddly enough, though the digitally “distressed” look annoyed me, the jump-cuts in the opening sequence seemed to have some real verve.
Really, the film is at its best when it’s going to furthest over the top. Like the scene in which Machete uses a man’s intestines to swing out of a window in a fight in a hospital. It’s ridiculous and inventive and sort of just the right tone. At its weakest, well, there’s Jessica Alba playing a cop (she’s a very bad actress…though very cute) and there’s Lindsay Lohan (also a very bad actress) playing the druggy, slutty daughter of Fahey’s character who winds up in a nun’s habit by the end. It’s kind of funny but when Michelle Rodriguez is the best of three female actresses in the film, you know you’ve got something. I don’t know what. Something.
For my money, the film rarely sustained its flashes of brilliance. There are plenty for a trailer’s worth, but over a range of an hour and forty five minutes or so, the level’s of wit, excitement, and fun dropped quite a bit. But I think that’s it, that there are flashes of wit and coolness, and Trejo is great really, but the film isn’t as cleverly written, as inventive and outrageous, consistently to be a good time.
And one final complaint: digital blood-letting. Especially in a throw-back kind of action movie. I know it’s way cheaper and easier. But it utterly lacks impact. It often denudes a gory moment of its gruesomeness. And I think that a lot of the scenes would have been better off with some old school FX rather than the digital ones.