Thursday, September 16, 2010

Machete will return in... MACHETE KILLS!... And... MACHETE KILLS AGAIN!

One of the most welcome developments in film this summer has been the return to what can only be described as "old-school kick-ass" cinema. By this illustratory phrase we mean the return to some of the filmmaking techniques, style and ethos of the action films of the late 70's and 80's; grittier, sillier and much more cinematically interesting then the CGI-infused made-to-order teenage dreck that fills most movie theaters summer after summer. Say what you will about the artistic merits of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis et al. in decades past but compared to the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced visual rape that are giant robots and angsty superheroes these guys are cinematic geniuses. Machete belongs to a somewhat different genre, that of 70's grindhouse cinema, but nonetheless shares the cinematic language and over the top (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) macho sensibilities of films such as the recent and fantastic The Expendables. Although suffering somewhat in comparison to that joyous exercise in genre, Machete nonetheless offers a lot of fun, especially for those of us blessed with a Y chromosome. This is doubly true if one sneaks a few cans of fine, cheap lager beer into the theater.

Machete's genesis began as a mock trailer shown with the Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse and ironically improves upon the mess of those two films by many miles of cinematic quality. Both Grindhouse films suffered from being much too self-referential and post-modern, basically a long in-joke infused with generation X nostalgia. Machete is an actual film, much of it done relatively "straight," at least as straight as you can get in a film where a man dives through a window holding onto another man's intestines to break his fall. Make no mistakes, the film is ridiculously over the top and gleefully irreverent in the style of good exploitation (or "Mexploitation" as Rodriguez has helpfully offered) with good dozes of knowing winks and with-it references (the funniest of which is probably the fact that Don Johnson's credit in the film is preceded by the words "And introducing...", a joke so geeky it boggles the mind).

The story is, of course, somewhat inconsequential. Machete is a Mexican federale who is double crossed by an evil drug lord, played surprisingly and ridiculously well by Steven Seagal whose already impressive frame has become so huge he can only be described with the delectable adjective "behemoth." Seagal fans should take note that The Hoarse One delivers his best performance in many a year, chewing the scenery (much of which consists of bare-breasted Asian women) with the fervor of a Nick Cage or Gary Oldman (!). Machete's family is brutally slain (on camera... everything is on camera in this film) and he finds himself across the border, trying to stay low and make a living while he plots his revenge. In one of those ridiculous coincidences that are the staple of such films Machete is offered a great deal of money to assassinate a far-right senator who plans to have an electrical fence build along the entire US-Mexico border and whose anti-immigration rhetoric is both racist and hate-filled. Machete takes the money, though he intends only to wound the loudmouth (played in a somewhat somnambulant state by Robert DeNiro) and takes aim at the senator, only to find himself in the middle of a political plot which begins with a bullet aimed at Machete. The senators advisor, played in a delicious sleazeball fashion by a mulletted Jeff Fahey, has orchestrated a mock assassination to boost the senators ailing ratings. An assassination attempt by an illegal immigrant is just what is needed to get the folks of the good old US of A to realize the dangers of an open border.

What ensues is a great deal of violence and sex, of course, much of which is highly goofy and enjoyable, though Rodriguez sometimes fails by trying too hard (like in the aforementioned intestine-pulling scene). Most of the actors have a great time (except DeNiro, but when was the last time he seemed to be trying to either act or have fun in a role?) especially Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez (playing, yet again, the "Michelle Rodriguez" role), Fahey and Don Johnson. Cheech Marin and Lindsey Lohan have some fun bits and Jessica Alba does her usual Maxim-model thing. The main problem with the film is that there is just too much stuff in it. It is too loud and busy by far, betraying the simple fun that should distinguish such films. Rodriguez seems to suffer from the same problem his cohort Mr. Tarantino does, namely that no one in a 500 mile radius from his film production has the guts to tell him "no." Tarantino's ailment is much worse (case in point, the recent Inglorious Basterds, or: A few good scenes in search of a movie) but Rodriguez nonetheless needs to be much more generous with the scissors in his upcoming films. The film introduces so many characters and wants to plug in so many obligatory grindhouse tropes and themes that the end result is often more exhausting than it is silly and fun.

Nonetheless, there is a great deal to be enjoyed here, and the delirium somehow starts to work for the film rather than against it, especially towards the end when Rodriguez completely lets loose with a scene where a veritable army of Mexicans (most of whom are armed with gardening tools) attack a Texan fort, guarded by the bigoted Don Johnson and his men. The Mexicans, riding in homeboy cars with hydraulics so powerful they can elevate the car to a point where it can crush a man, are here literally taking back the Alamo. The last half of the film is, in fact, an extended middle finger from Rodriguez to the kind of jingoistic rhetoric that has dominated a great deal of the discourse on illegal immigration.

Machete is deeply flawed and way too busy but it does accomplish what Grindhouse what supposed to, namely offer the same kind of ridiculous fun that the exploitation trash of the 70's so often did. Rodriguez accomplishes this by making an actual, modern exploitation film that, although influenced by the schlock films of the 70's, is not trying to be one. The film, although funny, is not a joke, and it deserves to be seen as a giddy exercise in genre and a genuinely fun theater experience. At least after a few beers.

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