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Review by Andrew Johnson for CaryCitizen
Does anybody remember Grindhouse? Back in 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino teamed up to make a double-feature homage to exploitation cinema of the 70s and 80s, complete with fake trailers for non-existent movies at the beginning and halfway points. Apparently mainstream audiences didn’t understand that this genre of film was often so bad it was usually a lot of fun and the sight of Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg wasn’t enough to put butts in theater seats. Grindhouse flopped at the box-office despite positive critical reception and having two big-name filmmakers attached.
Rodriguez, however, has never been one to care much about the financial side of filmmaking. His background as an independent filmmaker and “one-man film crew” philosophy have allowed him the ability to essentially find funding for whatever pet project he’d like, since if he needs to he can make it for cheap. It isn’t surprising, then, to see that he’s teamed up with editor Ethan Maniquis to now bring us Machete, a feature-length version of a fake trailer that was one of the most talked-about sequences of Grindhouse three years ago. Aside from a few new actors and different subplots, the basic plot (and in some cases, exact shots and scenes) from that original trailer are the same. Long-time character actor and frequent Rodriguez collaborator Danny Trejo stars as Machete, an ex-Federale who was forced by a drug lord to witness the execution of his family. Three years later, he’s working as a day laborer in Texas when a mysterious benefactor (Jeff Fahey) hires him to kill a state senator (Robert DeNiro) who has a habit of shooting illegal immigrants. Of course, our hero is double-crossed and it isn’t long before he’s teaming up with a sensual ICE officer (Jessica Alba) and an underground revolutionary (Michelle Rodriguez) to seek revenge and organize an army of illegal immigrants. To quote the original trailer: “They just f***ed with the wrong Mexican.”
Machete, like Grindhouse before it, is all about capturing the quirks and charm of old-school exploitation cinema. Like the titular favorite weapon of its protagonist, it’s primitive, complete with scratched film stock and more than a handful of intentional editing mishaps. Blood is spilled by the bucketful – there are more severed limbs in the first five minutes than an entire film in the Saw franchise. And it wouldn’t be an exploitation (Mexploitation?) film without some gratuitous nudity and a hero who can seduce every woman he meets. Brute masculinity meets ass-kicking femininity in an orgy of violence and mayhem during which nothing is taken seriously, and the dominant tone is that of a tongue being planted firmly in cheek. In short: it’s a blast. If you have a sense of humor and can appreciate camp, you’ll probably enjoy yourself.
With the exception of Trejo, who does a great job channeling the same stoic dignity as heroes like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, the dialogue and acting are intentionally cheesy and over-the-top. Everyone is clearly having a lot of fun here, particularly DeNiro as a conservative politician with a southern twang and Steven Seagal as a drug lord named Torrez. Yes, you read that correctly. Steven Seagal plays a Mexican drug lord with a bad accent and a penchant for samurai swords. Allow that to sink in. If that doesn’t perfectly capture what kind of movie this is, I don’t know what will.
Machete also proves once again that “Robert Rodriguez” and “subtle” don’t belong in the same sentence. This isn’t just a grindhouse movie, it’s a propaganda piece in which advocating for stricter border laws doesn’t just make you a racist, it means you’re unwittingly supporting the drug trade and exploitation of workers. The in-your-face political stance just adds to the overall absurdity of the experience – to be offended by Machete or to even claim it deserves the label “controversial” is like saying Speedy Gonzalez is a realistic depiction of Mexican culture. This movie is a giant cartoon; there are reasons to dislike it, but political sensibilities aren’t one of them, as they’re so grandiose and superficial they cross the line into irrelevance.
Unfortunately, while it’s a fun ride and definitely worth the price of admission, Machete doesn’t live up to its full potential. All of the characters are one-dimensional caricatures, and while this makes for a fun action romp in which the Good, Bad and Ugly are clearly defined, they’re far from memorable. There are moments of brilliance, and a few well-handled one-liners, but as tributes to exploitation cinema go, this is no Black Dynamite. It’s also no Planet Terror, Rodriguez’ previous entry into the Grindhouse double feature. That film managed to keep everything that can make grindhouse movies so-bad-they’re good (poor editing, melodramatic subplots, and anything-goes attitude) while sacrificing the elements that frequently make them intolerable to watch (unintentionally bad acting, flat characters and lackluster writing). The characters were far from well-rounded, but each had a defining characteristic that elevated them from simple archetypes. Machete, on the other hand, is a two-minute trailer stretched to 105 minutes. After an hour, it starts to lose steam and nearly crumbles under the weight of its own intentional emptiness.
In Once Upon in Mexico, Johnny Depp poses a question to Danny Trejo: “Are you a Mexi-Can or a Mexi-Can’t?” In Machete, Trejo proves he’s the former, capable of taking on a small army of bad guys with the same janitorial and gardening tools the upper class dismisses with impunity. Most of the time, the result is B-movie schlock that’s so bad it’s a blast. The rest of the time, it’s merely so bad it’s forgettable.
Andrew Johnson is the host of MovieChatter, a weekly film discussion podcast. He also occasionally blogs about film at The Kuleshov Effect. Of all the opinions out there about the current state of cinema, he swears that his are the right ones.