Now Playing: ‘Machete’ Has Some Issues (Not Just Immigration-Related)

‘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.

6 comments

  1. Jane Morgan

    By my math, Robert Rodriguez has made two good movies in his life. He’s 2 for 15. Desperado and Sin City. And yet, I still love him. But anytime he is attached as a screenwriter, I know that the movie is going to suck. And despite the sucking, I know I am still going to watch it. And like most of it. Because, as a director, he’s fucking badass. I can’t explain the psychology here. I wasn’t abused as a child. But I like “bad” movies.

    • My first instinct was to object to your comment about Rodriguez being only 2 for 15. But then I thought about it and, yeah, you’re kind of right. Most of his movies do suck, especially those awful kids’ movies that he lets his young sons write for him (never a good idea).

      El Mariachi is roughly executed, but kind of fun. It certainly showed that he had potential. And I’d count From Dusk Till Dawn as a guilty pleasure. Other than that, you’re right that Desperado and Sin City stand head and shoulders above everything else he’s ever directed. Just remembering how awful Once Upon a Time in Mexico was makes me mad.

      • Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the first in the series that I saw and I loved it. Going back and seeing the rest was a delight!

        I enjoyed The Faculty, and I’m not sure if we’re gonna count Four Rooms and Dusk Til Dawn but I thought those were great too.

        So I guess I disagree pretty wholeheartedly.

        I’d like him more, though, if he ditched the cowboy hat.

  2. BostonMA

    wow you two i’m a little surprised. now i do think that RR has continually watered down his career instead of slow burning and churning out masterpiece after masterpiece like his partner in film QT has done but Desperado was the only film of the Mexico Trilogy that i didn’t like and i thought El Mariachi was good and the one you hate Josh, was great, but only great because IMO, everything that’s cranked up in the entry works so well. i also, fully and seriously consider Sin City to be an absolute 10/10 masterpiece and From Dusk Till Dawn to be a good, not great, film that is a must see for anyone who’s a fan of film. in THAT movie, QT’s of course the most important part to it, with his knack for tremendous writing not surprisingly being present but also, his acting talent that seemed to be non-existent in Pulp Fiction, surprisingly on hand. the movie’s second half is all guilty pleasure though, and this is of course where we see the watered down parts of RR’s career come into play, the parts that are only as talented as his grindhouse aspects can be, which are pretty much forgettable 70s and 80s B movies.

    if Sin City, other than the Tarantino directed car scene involving Benicio and Clive Owen, is a full work of Rodriguez (since i can’t imagine all of the talented directorial work helming from the filmmaker side of Frank Miller, who went on to make The Spirit…), then he’s gotta wake the fuck up and realize that he’s getting older and his career is getting less and less memorable. now, that’s not to say that i’m not interested in this movie. Cheez’s posts in the film forum thread and the RT consensus has got my mouth watering for a redbox release in 3-5 months from now but what i mean is that after this, Rodriguez needs to belt out Sin City 2 and 3, quickly, and with them being every bit as good as the first stellar film (which will be tough) because personally, i never understand the RR and QT comparisons TALENT WISE because to me, there’s nothing to compare when looking at their full careers.

  3. Drew Taylor

    I agree that Rodriguez mostly sucks, although I do have a guilty fondness for both “The Faculty” and “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

    Part of the reason is that he’s insisted on doing every-fucking-thing himself. If you go back and watch “Desperado,” with its lush desert photography courtesy of Guillermo Navarro, and compare it to the flat, cell phone camera-style amateurism of “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” I think it goes a long way in explaining his downfall.

    Once upon a time he was an artist who used to work with other artists. Now he’s an autocrat who’s drunk on his own power.

  4. Alright, I just plain enjoyed this movie, and for one of the reasons you didn’t. ‘Machete’ was done with a straight face.

    If it had been done with a wink, I think it would have been dreadful. In fact, I’d say there was still a bit too much for my tastes – what with the same sex music cueing over and over again.

    I loved the recycled footage and the dull acting. It was part of the fun! Then again, I’m a big fan of ‘sploitation and bad films in general.

    I’m also a huge dork for Seagal’s more recent films, and I loved his awful accent and his severely chopped up action sequence.

    I was promised a bad exploitation film and ‘Machete’ delivered. Huzzah!

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