Posts Tagged ‘Machete’

As fate and the vagaries of my DVD rental package would have it, we go straight from Touch of Evil‘s handling of cross-border prejudice and political corruption to another film with a slightly different take on the same themes: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ 2010 movie Machete. Marching towards this review with ineluctable certainty are the words ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’… oh look, they’ve arrived.

Machete, as you may or may not know, originated as one of the spoof trailers that accompanied the two Grindhouse movies on their various releases (a complex story). It apparently received such a positive response (I must admit I probably enjoyed it rather more than Planet Terror, the film it was accompanying) that a full movie was duly made. As such, this film is arguably a textbook definition of being an extended joke.

The meandering and not especially coherent plot concerns the exploits of a Mexican ex-cop known as Machete due to his love of sharp objects (and also of hitting people with them). He is played (well, this is a bit of an issue, which we will return to) by Danny Trejo, a leather-faced performer who has carved out a bit of a niche for himself as convicts and lowlives on movies and TV. Machete is illegally working as a labourer in Texas when he is hired to assassinate John McLaughlin (Robert de Niro – yes, that Robert de Niro), a senator whose support mainly comes from his toxically anti-Mexican rhetoric – he also associates with a gang of murderous vigilantes led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson – yes, that Don Johnson).

Accepting mainly so he can pass his fee on to an underground network for the betterment of Mexican illegals run by Lus (the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez), Machete sets out to kill the senator – but rapidly discovers he’s been set up by McLaughlin’s aide (Jeff Fahey), intent on creating sympathy for the senator’s views and drumming up anti-Mexican sentiment. Needless to say, our man embarks on a blood-splattered revenge against those who have ruthlessly betrayed him.

(And I haven’t even mentioned Jessica Alba as a government agent, Steven Seagal (yes, that Steven Seagal) as a drug baron, or Lindsay Lohan (yes, that Lindsay Lohan) who wanders through the final section of the film as a gun-toting nun. It’s not that the plot is especially complex – far from it – it’s just utterly all over the place.)

Well, you know, I sat down to watch Machete with reasonable expectations, willing to cut it some slack – Robert Rodriguez is, if nothing else, a consistent film-maker, I’ll watch anything with Michelle Rodriguez in it, and Danny Trejo has certainly got presence. I was hoping for a moderately OTT action movie pastiche that didn’t take itself too seriously. The problem I have with Machete is that it’s actually… well I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to be, and I suspect some of the people involved don’t know either.

Spoof, satire, parody, broad comedy, genuine exploitation (perhaps in this case that should be Mexploitation) movie: the film lurches back and forth across genre boundaries almost at random, its intelligence level going up and down wildly in the process. Particularly baffling is all the stuff about the rights of Mexican illegals in the USA – while I understand this parallels the political dimension of blaxploitation films of the 70s, it’s not in itself particularly funny if it’s here as a parody, and if it’s seriously meant then it’s horribly trivialised by its inclusion in such a determinedly stupid film (‘the most absurd thing I’ve ever read’ was the verdict of one major actor who declined to participate).

That said, some of the Mexican jokes are quite amusing – there’s a running gag where Machete infiltrates the bad guy’s house simply by pretending to be the gardener, and later on beats up a bevy of henchmen using horticultural equipment – even if the climax (our hero raises an army of illegal labourers to battle the forces of evil, and they all turn up waving the accoutrements of their jobs) is again too silly to be genuinely funny. Basically, as a comedy, Machete is only consistently amusing if you subscribe to an oh-ho-ho-isn’t-this-just-so-intentionally-crap? sensibility, and as anything else it’s undermined by the presence of all these laboured attempts at humour.

Compared to this, the film’s problems in the acting department are relatively small beer, but – come on, this is a movie with Danny Trejo in the lead role, which if nothing else demonstrates that presence and charisma are not the same thing. On the strength of this outing Trejo’s range as an actor runs from A to very nearly the far end of A. It’s like making a movie with Chewbacca playing the lead – Trejo just lumbers around making noises and everyone else either tries to copy his style or wildly overacts in an attempt to compensate for it. Almost all the other performances are paralytically lousy, one way or another, which is especially shocking given some of the people Robert Rodriguez has (God knows how) assembled.

Not that long ago, Robert de Niro was routinely being hailed as the greatest screen actor of his generation – one has to wonder what happened, given that his late-period work seems to mostly consist of deeply underwhelming extended cameos in things like this and Killer Elite. Never mind being acted off the screen by Jason Statham, here de Niro is outperformed by, of all people, Steven Seagal. Steven Seagal! To be fair, the world’s least agile martial arts star is on rather good, self-parodying form here.

When Steven Seagal’s acting is one of the best things about a movie you know you’ve slipped a long way off the map of cinematic excellence. Still, neither that nor Michelle Rodriguez kicking ass in a bikini top were quite enough to redeem the movie. At the end of Planet Terror I told anyone who’d listen that it’s all too easy to make a bad film by accident, and plenty of people do every year, and so for a film-maker like Robert Rodriguez to make a bad film intentionally felt like a terrible squandering of both time and talent. I feel exactly the same about Machete, except perhaps even moreso. Of course, I am in the minority, as usual: financing for the two sequels we’re threatened with promised at the end of this film has apparently already been secured, and production is only waiting on Rodriguez to finish writing the scripts. Don’t rush on my account, Bob.

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