‘Grindhouse,’ Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s loving homage to B-movies of the 1970s, opened with a mock trailer for an exploitation flick called ‘Machete.’ No one ever really thought that ‘Machete’ would be its own movie, mostly because the fake trailer was… errr… fake. Even more so, ‘Grindhouse’ tanked at the box office. Like, hard. Like, the theater owners had to leave up signs explaining that the movie was a double feature and, no, you shouldn’t leave halfway through. So it’s kind of a surprise that ‘Machete’ is making its way to theaters in an elongated version. Less of a surprise: It doesn’t really work.
In the original trailer, Danny Trejo, the perennial character actor mostly known for his severe grimace and the tattoo of a buxom woman painted across his chest, plays the titular “Mexpoitation” hero. He slices and dices various anonymous thugs, mostly with the use of his titular blade. For two minutes, the trailers was pretty damn funny – a crisp, sharply satiric introduction to the world that Tarantino, Rodriguez, and guest directors Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth labored hard to achieve, one in which social commentary and balls-out theatrics rest comfortably side-by-side.
One of the great things about both ‘Sin City‘ and Rodriguez’s half of ‘Grindhouse,’ the zombie-palooza ‘Planet Terror,’ is that the projects played to Rodriguez’s strengths: snappy dialogue and fast-moving action. The movies’ truncated lengths and inherent choppiness (remember: ‘Sin City’ was three stories spliced together which segued with very little rhyme or reason) meant that any time they got talky or boring, some crazy shit could suddenly happen as a way of saying, “Hey, look over here for a second!” And then, without knowing it, you were having fun again.
So it’s kind of shocking that ‘Machete’ – after an extended prologue that features at least a dozen beheadings (courtesy of Trejo’s federale-turned-vigilante) and a naked woman pulling a cell phone out of her vagina – forgoes with the whole ‘Grindhouse’ aesthetic. The movie (co-directed by Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis) is played almost completely straight. It has a title sequence that, while splashy, could have been influenced by Mexican folklore or art. (I kept waiting for the thing to look like a Frida Kahlo painting.) The picture doesn’t look crummy or scratchy, and all the actors deliver their lines with a completely straight face. Not only are they not winking at the audience, but someone should have checked to make sure they still had pulses.
The “story” of the movie is a loose, extended riff on the original trailer. A convoluted assassination plot involves a hard-line anti-immigration senator (Robert De Niro, slumming it), a hell-bent Border Patrol office (Don Johnson – yes, seriously), and a politically minded drug pusher (Jeff Fahey). There’s also a side story that dovetails and gets caught up in everything else about a renegade taco saleswoman named She (Michelle Rodriguez) and an inquisitive customs officer (Jessica Alba). Also, at some point, Lindsey Lohan shows up as Fahey’s drug-addicted daughter, who inexplicably bares her breasts and then puts on a nun’s habit to shoot people in the head. (This is the kind of internal logic we’re dealing with.) Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that a wigged Steve Seagal plays a Mexican gangster with a fondness for samurai swords.
Without the built-in fun of the ‘Grindhouse’ conceit – such as its “missing reels,” dramatic scene changes, and stilted acting – ‘Machete’ is more of a slog than anything else. No amount of colorful casting can to convince you otherwise. For large stretches of the movie, our heroic Mexican vigilante is off doing something that we’re never privy to (or maybe he’s recovering from a series of injuries, since he always seems to be limping). Once Trejo returns to the screen, the crag-faced 67-year-old actor reminds us why he’s never been the lead in a movie before: he’s much better at scowling than emoting, even when he’s saddled with a ridiculously tragic backstory. But even that’s better than Alba, blandly attired, giving endless speeches about immigration reform.
And therein lies the second problem with ‘Machete’ – it confuses subtext with text. After virtually every extended action sequence, of which there are many, there’s a solemn speech or sentiment about immigration, the importance of illegal aliens, and so on. If this had been a cutting, toothy subtext, it might have been fun. Look at the way that George Romero, even to this day, manages to package his lefty political inclinations inside zombie crowd-pleasers. But Rodriguez never, ever, engages in anything with subtlety. Everything is turned up to 11, screaming, and on fire. Instead of punctuating a moment or pulling us into the chaos via political relevancy, the movie beats you over the head. The message becomes dulled and inert.
So what are we left with? A few mildly diverting action sequences admittedly do occasionally raise the heart rate. Otherwise, some has-been actors strut around cheap-ass sets, while we marvel at the audacity of a profitable and experienced director being so cheap that he actually recycles footage from the phony trailer for no good reason! We also come away with the notion that so-called “immigration reform” is bad (no argument there) and that, really, ‘Machete’ was better as a trailer for a movie that didn’t actually exist.