Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Machete

Fairly early into Machete (2010) , a doctor randomly tells one of his nurses that the human intestines are actually 10 times longer than the human body. This factoid proves to be foreshadowing because within minutes, our titular character (Danny Trejo) disembowels one of the villain's henchmen and uses his guts as a rope to dive out a window and swing to safety. Yep, Machete is that kind of movie.

Machete began life as a fake trailer directed by Robert Rodriguez that played in front of his contribution to 2007's Grindhouse, Rodriguez's collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.  Grindhouse was Rodriguez's and Tarantino's tribute to the sleazy, exploitation, drive-in cinema of the 1970s. These movies often fell into the horror, kung fu, sexploiation, blaxploitation, and spaghetti western genres, and they were often wall-to-wall with violence, sex, and other such marketable elements. To authenticate the grindhouse experience, Grindhouse the film featured a number of fake trailers of similarly and deliberately trashy movies (as well as deliberate scratches in the footage and missing reels). The fake trailers proved popular enough that talk emerged of actually turning them into movies, and the result is an expanded feature version of Machete.

The history of the film raises the question: can something that works as a tribute and inside joke for a two-three minute trailer work at full-length? Well, Rodriquez comes up with enough gross-out gags, action sequences, stylish posing, babes, and ironic humor to at least sustain interest for the running length. Machete is certainly never boring and at times quite exhilarating, but did we really need it? 

Machete (Trejo) is an ex-federales living as an illegal in Texas when he's offered a sizable amount of money by a shifty government official (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a state senator (Robert De Niro) who wants to build a wall to stop the flow of undocumented migrant workers. When he goes to perform the job, Machete discovers he has been set up and goes on a path of destruction to find the truth and retribution. As the tagline says, "They fucked with the wrong Mexican." 

This is going to sound strange, but I'm just going to come out with it: Machete lacks the innocence of seventies grindhouse cinema. Let me rephrase it; the exploitation movies of decades past do not have the same self-awareness of Machete. Sure, many of these types of movies are utter drek, but this is a genre that also gave us the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and Death Race 2000. Inventive filmmakers such Roger Corman and Larry Cohen produced compelling work on micro-budgets, scraping by however they could to make the best movies possible. I'm reminded of interviews of film noir actors of the 1940s; to them, they weren't making a new genre, just shooting B-level pictures.

Now, Rodriguez comes in with a budget that dwarfs anything these other directors and producers had, self-consciously aware of the trappings of the genre, and it's all one big joke. Everything is done to look cool or get a laugh. As a fake trailer, that's a hilarious approach. As a full-length feature, it kind of makes me want Rodriguez to strive for something a little more ambitious. After a while, I just wanted to say, "Yeah, I get it."

Still, there is plenty to like about Machete. Trejo is a consummate bad ass, and Cheech Marin is hilarious as his brother, a reformed priest who eventually says things like "God has mercy. I don't!" Fahey is wonderfully scummy, but the best surprise was Steven Sesgal playing a Mexican drug kingpin whom Machete has a history with (this is Seagal's best role in years). The action scenes are well done, and Rodriguez's direction remains as stylish and energetic as ever.

I watched Machete alone which probably wasn't the ideal way to do so. This a movie that begs to be watched by a group of friends, preferably those who appreciate so-called trash pictures and understand Rodriquez's sense of humor. This is definitely a movie you have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate, and maybe I wasn't when I saw it.

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