Review: 'Machete' offers up authentic exploitation thrills with no frills
There are certain movies that should only be seen with real audiences, paying crowds, people who have showed up and put down their hard-earned money with some expectations. "Machete" is one of those movies. I went to a midnight screening of the film in Woodland Hills tonight, and the theater was about half-full of people who were there to be entertained. And I'd say based on their vocal approval, roared after most of the movie's big punchlines, they were entertained and left feeling like they got their money's worth. More than "The Expendables," and even more than "Piranha 3D," this is the 2010 summer movie that understands and emulates the charms of the classic exploitation picture. "Machete" isn't just pretending to be classic Mexploitation… it is a genuinely angry movie that has something on its mind in support of all the mayhem, and it offers up an unlikely lead role to Danny Trejo, who does as good a job of navigating the tricky shifts in tone here as Michael Jai White did in last year's "Black Dynamite."
The film is credited to Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez as co-directors, and it's a Frankenstein's monster of a screenplay, with footage shot for the original "Grindhouse" trailer that wasn't used, footage that reproduces footage from that trailer, and a whole lot of new material shot just for the movie. The script by Robert and Alvaro Rodriguez is fairly lean, hustling from set-up to kickoff to non-stop action. There's no fat on the movie, and it moves from winking sort of in-jokey humor at the beginning to some fairly righteous scathing anger by the end of the film. Although Rodriguez couldn't have guessed when he first came up with the idea, "Machete" is incredibly topical now, of the moment, and the people in the theater with me tonight were vocally reacting to the film's most political gags and lines.
I sort of can't believe "Machete" exists. It's one thing to say "It's a movie about a former Mexican federale who lost his family and vanished into the underbelly of illegal American immigrant life. He's approached by a man who offers him a stack of cash to shoot an anti-immigrant Senator, only to realize he's been set up. He ends up taking revenge on the people who set him up and the ones who took his family, with help from new friends." That's the movie. That's not the part of the film that seems bizarre or hard to believe. It's only once you factor in the cast, the notion that Robert De Niro plays the Senator, or that Jessica Alba is the ICE agent chasing Machete or that Steven Seagal is Torrez, the druglord who destroyed Machete's family in the first place. Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, and Don Johnson all play pivotal roles in the film as the man who hires Machete, Machete's priest brother, and a border patrol vigilante, and they're all great. And just typing that out… typing any of that out… seems crazy.
And yet the film never feels like it's suffering from Too Much Clever. For one thing, Danny Trejo isn't a special effect, and he's not some Hollywood pretty boy pretending to be something. The reason directors love him is because Trejo brings his real history to the table. He's authentic. And in the film's opening sequence, which features Lt. Von Stillman (Don Johnson) and his vigilantes taking Senator McLaughlin (De Niro) hunting along the border. They shoot down a pregnant woman and her husband. It's despicable. And for the rest of the movie, even when the outrageousness of the action makes you laugh, you have to know that there is something real simmering underneath. I have a friend who has been agitated about this film for months because he's convinced that the film will advocate a race war. And now, having seen it, his fears are sort of justified. The film is agitprop as sincere as "The Mack" must have been when it was released. It is absurd fun, but it is also a real byproduct of the anger that spurs much of the conversation around the immigration debate these days. It's a shame, though, because I think he'd love the energy and the filmmaking here.
It's hard to really review the film on a technical level, since the entire "Grindhouse" aesthetic excuses anything that's cheap or shoddy or crazy or that doesn't really match. Lindsay Lohan's role, for example, uses a blatant double in many sequences, and it's about as convincing as the Bela Lugosi double in "Plan Nine From Outer Space." And that seems to be the point. The gore in the film is hilarious and well-staged, and the cinematography by Jimmy Lindsey is hilariously accurate and uneven.
Really, it's the cast. Michelle Rodriguez, for example, is not just in tune with the material, she's also never been hotter in any film. Tom Savini shows up as a hired killer, and he's perfectly cast, smarmy and pumped up. Shea Whigham has a great run for about 30 or 40 minutes, and it's a reminder that he's still one of the great secrets working today. Seagal relishes everything he does in the film, and he's barely able to contain his smile as he does terrible things, and the same is true of Don Johnson. Jeff Fahey and Robert De Niro spend more of the film together than I would have guessed, and De Niro really seems determined to just go for it, play a b-movie bad guy who deserves every rotten thing that happens to him. Scene after scene, "Machete" goes for the big image, the thing that looks or feels right in the moment. It's a film that plays directly to your id, impassioned to the point of lunacy.
I don't think the question of legal and illegal immigration will be settled by violence, and I don't think "Machete" even tries to offer real answers to some of the questions that are in the national debate these days. But I do think that seeing a film like "Machete" play tonight to a mixed crowd that seemed to need that release is important. It means we're digesting these ideas into pop culture now. The broader the conversation, the quicker we'll reach some real decisions and start finding solutions.
And in the meantime, "Machete" works as pure badass cinema fun. Funny and violent and propulsively scored, "Machete" is pure exploitation gold, more revival than satire, and it is tense, dirty fun from end to end
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