Friday, September 10, 2010

Machete: Slice 'n' Dice

Machete (2010) • View trailer for Machete
Three stars (out of five). Rated R for violence, profanity, nudity and gallons o' grue
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.10.10

Best exploitative trash I've seen in years. 

And very difficult to select a favorite moment. 

Robert De Niro, slumming even more than usual, given all the low-rent roles he has taken during the past several years? Cheech Marin, with a novel means of doing the Lord's work? Michelle Rodriguez, finally landing the part for which her sneering, bad-ass self was born? 

Lindsey Lohan, living down to her inner slut?

Maybe not that last one. 

For sheer brazen temerity, however, I've gotta nominate co-scripter and co-director Robert Rodriguez, for having the cajones to lace this cheerfully preposterous devil's brew with a cheeky political subtext. I mean, really: eviscerated limbs, severed heads and naked babes ... in a message movie? 

You gotta be impressed. 

Eventually, it all comes down to this: Machete (Danny Trejo,
foreground left) and his huge knife versus Torrez (Steven Segal) and
his two razor-sharp ninja blades. Conveniently, scores of other
gun-toting heroes and baddies stop shooting each other, in order
to watch the fight.
The back-story on Machete is almost as hilariously warped as the film itself. When Rodriguez teamed with fellow bad boy Quentin Tarantino for 2007's Grindhouse, the notion was to create the equivalent of a 1970s double-feature of sleaze. To that end, the two "main features" were separated by fictitious  and equally tasteless  coming attractions. One of those faux flicks was Machete, starring Danny Trejo, Rodriguez's favorite craggy, oversized force of nature. 

So here we are, a few years later, and Rodriguez has made good on the promise ... by concocting a film based on a preview for a film that didn't exist at the time. 

Now, that's what I call tweaking the system. 
Rodriguez at full blast, it must be mentioned, indulges in gleefully violent carnage that makes Tarantino look restrained. The Tex-Mex director's vengeance-fueled El Mariachi trilogy climaxed with the hail of gunfire unleashed in 2003's Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which gave Johnny Depp one of his more unusual roles  and you must appreciate the weight of that comment  as an assassin who keeps on shooting, despite getting both eyes gouged out. 

Rodriguez's contribution to 2005's Sin City was just as depraved, and of course 2007's Planet Terror  the director's feature half of Grindhouse  hit its own ghoulish heights. Memorable moment: A grody, disease-infected baddie still determined to rape one of our heroines, despite his, ah, personal equipment having turned into green cottage cheese and oozed onto the floor. 

I mention this by way of warning: The likes of Machete are not to be experienced by those lacking strong stomachs and the ability to view in-your-face gore as very dark humor. 

The film kicks into high gear with a prologue that finds Machete (Trejo) as one of Mexico's rare honest cops, a Federale determined to rescue a young woman captured by drug lord Torrez (a puffy Steven Seagal) and various goons. Machete's weapon of choice is a thumping big machete, with which he slices, skewers and decapitates various minions before finding the comely lass, quite naked and stretched out on a bed. 

Not bothering to waste time helping her dress, Machete tosses the gal over one shoulder and prepares to depart. Alas, she's hardly a victim, and the whole situation was a set-up; she gets the drop on our hero, wounds him with his own knife and then calls her boss into the room, having produced a cell phone from the only place she could have hidden it on her naked bod. 

Cheerful vulgarity, right? 

Moments later, poor Machete watches helplessly as his kidnapped wife is killed. His young daughter's similar fate, fortunately, is kept off-camera. 

Torrez orders Machete's slow death, but of course doesn't hang around long enough to see the job through. (Villains never do, in movies like this.) Against all odds, our tortured Federale escapes. 

Three years pass. 

Now living off the grid in Texas, Machete meets up with Luz (Rodriguez), a sassy young woman who runs a taco stand by day, and helps Mexican illegals by night. Her activities are being monitored by Sartana (Jessica Alba), an ambitious agent of the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Elsewhere, Texas Sen. McLaughlin (De Niro) is waging a re-election campaign on a platform to get tough  very tough  about illegal immigration. McLaughlin doesn't just want a fence along the Mexican border; he wants it lethally electrified. He's also in bed with Stillman (Don Johnson), a good ol' boy militia leader who enjoys shooting "invading" illegals for sport ... even the pregnant ones. 

McLaughlin's campaign is being handled by his ambitious aide, Booth (Jeff Fahey), who concocts a diabolical scheme involving an assassination attempt on the senator. McLaughlin is only wounded  deliberately  and Machete, in full view of TV cameras, gets tagged for the crime. Public sentiment rages against illegal Mexican immigrants, and suddenly McLaughlin's re-election chances look rosy. 

You have to admit, given the tone of the times, that this plotline isn't nearly as far-fetched as we'd prefer to believe. 

Like I said, Rodriguez deserves credit for sheer audacity. His script  co-written with Alvaro Rodriguez  blithely dances between sharp social commentary and trailer-trash sensibilities. Trejo's one-man rampages alternate with quieter moments of deadpan humor, as when two Mexican restaurant cooks calmly discuss these escalating events, as they're covered on TV news, or when a couple of Booth's henchmen debate the merits of their boss ... before facing Machete and a weed-whacker with razor-bladed enhancements. 

Machete has one more ace up his sleeve: a brother (Cheech Marin) who has become a priest at a local church. And we know where that will lead. 

Our hero also has time for life's carnal pleasures, since every woman he encounters cheerfully hops into bed with him. These interludes include oddly chaste trysts with both Luz and Sartana, cheeky invitations from some naughty nurses and a somewhat more explicit swimming pool menage a trois with Booth's willing wife, June (Alicia Rachel Marek), and daughter, April (Lohan). 

Ah, yes: Lohan. Apparently believing that embracing her contemptuous real-world behavior somehow will turn it into a virtue, she plays a slutty coke head who mouths off to her parents and talks excitedly about becoming an Internet sensation by revealing "all" of herself. In other words, the role of April clearly is modeled on Lohan's actual self, and she goes for it. 

You won't be surprised to learn that April winds up in a nun's habit, before this wild 'n' woolly ride concludes. You also won't be surprised by what she does, 'in the name of her father.' 

Ironically, casting Lohan in this role may have been a miscalculation. Trejo, Rodriguez, Alba, Johnson, Fahey, Seagal, Marin and even De Niro have a grand time hamming it up in trash of this nature, and they can't really hurt their respective careers. 

Watching Lohan debase herself this way, however, feels like a case of diminished capacity; her character's onscreen antics are so close to her actual tabloid fodder that we're yanked out of the film's exaggerated atmosphere. The sense of harmless fun evaporates when she's on screen. 

Fortunately, her part is minor. 

Rodriguez explains, in the film's press notes, that he was inspired by director John Woo's hyper-violent crime thrillers with star Chow Yun-Fat, specifically Hard Boiled and The Killer. Perceiving a dearth of Latin-flavored action movies, Rodriguez killed two birds with the same bloody stone, and thus Machete was born. 

Rodriguez certainly delivers the same guerrilla filmmaking sensibilities, and his cheeky nod to the genre's low-budget origins includes deliberately "stressing" the film stock with faux scratches, to convey the impression of a tired 35mm print that has been run through thousands of old-style projectors. 

And, needless to say, the closing credits offer the promise that Machete will return in not just one, but two sequels. (Probably not. But we can hope.) 

Every civilized pejorative applies here: Machete is vulgar, tasteless, crass, unrelentingly violent and unbelievably gratuitous. It's also a helluva good time. 

So shoot me.

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