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Machete (2010)

On the (Electrified) Fence

In 2007, Robert Rodriguez created a fake trailer for a throwback piece of Mexploitation called Machete.  It’s a two-minute masterpiece of absurdity, packed with gore, explosions, nudity, and hilariously authentic Z-movie dialogue. The trailer appeared as part of the Grindhouse double-feature, Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino’s famous bomb of a love-letter to the trash cinema that informed their lives and careers; as such, there’s a thick layer of post-production grime laid on top of the clip, as if the director had soaked his final print in a vat of piss and razor blades.

When I heard that a full-length theatrical feature was in the works, my first thought was that this could possibly be the coolest movie ever; where Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse—the sci-fi thriller spoof Planet Terror—lost the spark of easy, disposable fun halfway through by getting bogged down in plot, I pegged Machete as a fool-proof 80-minute revenge romp. My second thought was that there was no way a major studio would release such a movie, especially after the box office failure of its parent film.

Fox released Machete this weekend, and much like Grindhouse, it is two different kinds of movies in one.  The first is the down-and-dirty bloodbath we were promised three years ago; the second is a fascinating semi-polemic about border politics in America. Machete shakily walks the same fine line as Planet Terror, and just barely manages to keep its footing.

The movie opens with a pair of Mexican federales raiding the home of drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal) in order to save the kidnapped daughter of a government official. Machete (Danny Trejo) disobeys orders to wait for backup and ends up facing down a small army by himself (his partner didn’t make it through the front gate). After killing everyone in sight, Machete sweeps up the girl—who’s fully nude, of course—and heads for safety.

In a classic turning of the tables, the girl turns out to be one of Torrez’s pawns, and she performs one of the film’s few jaw-dropping acts—pulling a cell phone out of her vagina in order to spring a trap.  Torrez shows up and kills Machete’s family in front of him, which rolls us right into the Wild Bunch-style opening credits sequence.

The beauty of this prologue—aside from the creative kills and aforementioned pie-phone—is the carryover of the Grindhouse aesthetic. The first five minutes look like they were pulled from the flooded-basement vault of a New York porno palace; they’re gritty, choppily edited and the action files by unapologetically. Rodriguez fulfills his promise of artful garbage here, and I smiled through every frame.

A strange thing happens after the credits. The yellow-orange tint disappears, along with the scratches and pops. The editing becomes more competent. The tone becomes more serious. In short, Machete starts to look like a real movie, and that’s where the troubles begin.

Yes, the basic premise of the trailer is intact. Machete, having somehow escaped Torrez’s men, has left his career as a lawman behind.  Now working as a day laborer, he draws the attention of a shady businessman named Booth (Jeff Fahey), who picks him up and offers him a job. Booth needs a skilled assassin to take out an anti-immigrant crusader and Texas senator named McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) in order to keep the supply-and-demand of illegal workers balanced. The senator’s proposed electrified border fence would restrict the valuable labor that keeps businesses’ profits up.

Machete takes the job and gives his $150,000 salary to his friend, Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who runs an immigrant-smuggling operation out of her Texas/Mexico border taco stand. When Machete shows up for the assassination, one of Booth’s men shoots him in the shoulder and then wounds McLaughlin in the leg—creating both a political martyr and the perfect patsy. On the run from the law, Machete goes underground with the help of Luz’s Network—a far-reaching organization of immigrant sympathizers who range in stature from dishwashers to doctors.

The rest of the movie is a convoluted revenge picture that piles on characters and sub-plots that diminish the guilty-pleasure simplicity of that first trailer. Booth is actually McLaughlin’s aid, and they’re both working for Torrez.  Booth’s wife and daughter end up drugged and kidnapped by Machete and taken to the church run by Machete’s brother, Padre (Cheech Marin); the daughter (Lindsay Lohan) becomes a vigilante in a nun’s habit. There’s also Jessica Alba’s character, Sartana, an Immigration officer who reluctantly joins the Network. We also see McLaughlin have a meltdown, during which he brandishes a gun, steals a taxi, and heads for the compound run by his border militia buddy, Lt. Stillman (Don Johnson). For those keeping track, this makes for the film’s fourth super-villain; which is only three less than appear in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—at least the point of that movie was to have the protagonist take down a lot of super-villains.

If none of this sounds fun to you, it wasn’t that fun for me, either.  Somewhere along the line, Robert Rodriguez forgot what genre he was working in, and transformed Machete into a Message Movie. He’s got a sound idea (that the immigration debate in America has been made to be about race when it’s actually about business—and in the eye of the storm are actual people who have been demonized and dehumanized), but he lacks the tools to explain himself in the context of an action picture; he also offers no real solutions, so Machete ends up being a kind of Lifetime knock-off of Erin Brockovich with machine guns and tits.

That’s not to say there aren’t some inspired moments in the movie. In one sequence, a cornered Machete uses a thug’s intestines to rappel down the side of a hospital. I also loved Lindsay Lohan’s introduction as the hot, drugged-out-of-her-mind wannabe model. And Jeff Fahey steals the picture as Booth. His beleaguered mobster/henchman can be menacing and funny, and I almost wish Rodriguez had found a way to team him up with Machete.

It’s funny, looking back on the movie with two days’ distance: When I left the theatre, I felt like I’d had a good time; but since I’m writing about the movie as a movie—grading it as a story—I have to admit that it could have been a lot better. There are easily twenty-five minutes that could be trimmed from this thing (sad to say, but Rodriguez falls into the trap of the hour-and-forty-five-minute action movie), and when compared to The Expendables, I have no doubt that Machete could have accomplished all of its ends with six fewer characters and three fewer plot points. I guess this is progress, then, as the Rodriguez movie this most reminds me of is Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which I realized was shit about twenty minutes in.

Machete is a movie trapped in the unfortunate limbo of not being trashy enough to be truly grindhouse, and not being smart enough to be a platform for any coherent point of view. If the teasers at the end of the film are real, and Machete is slated to return for two more adventures, I can only hope that Robert Rodriquez takes the time to watch some of his favorite exploitation films and remember that their very illegitimacy is what made them so entertaining in the first place.

Note: I neglected to mention Ethan Maniquis, Rodriguez's co-director on the film. Machete has such a Rodriguez stamp on it, that I can't tell what was handled by which person (much like work-for-hire directors on sitcoms). I will say that the climactic compound raid is very hard to watch, specifically because it is so poorly staged that it looks like twenty scenes from different movies with such climaxes stitched together. I couldn't tell who was trying to get to what and through whom, except for the main characters; and even their motives were a bit muddy. So maybe I did Maniquis a favor by leaving him out. You're welcome.

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