Film review by: Witney Seibold
2010 has been a remarkable year for B films. We had the near-perfect “Splice,” which bothered to traverse some pretty weird sexual territory. We had “Step Up 3D,” which fully embraced its featherweight exploitation conceits. We had “The Expendables,” which compiled a shopping list of action stars. We had “Salt,” which finally got action films right. We had “Piranha 3D,” which had more guts and nudity than we’re used to seeing these days. And now we have Robert Rodriguez‘s cheap, goofy brownsploitation actioner “Machete,” which started life as a joke trailer for “Grindhouse,” and mushroomed into a feature film. It’s full of all the recognizable genre tropes, but, far from being an empty style exercise, Rodriguez seems to believe in his film; he may be winking a lot, but he’s clearly not above the material. He also teamed up with another director, Ethan Maniquis, previously Rodriguez’s editor, making for action scenes that are a little tighter and more cogent than Rodriguez’s usual sloppiness.
Which means we have a hyperactive, stylized unlikely action flick with a heap of recognizable actors, some really pretty women, a and none of the tragic sermonizing from “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” a lot less of the cutesy gimmickry of the “Spy Kids” sequels, and none of the weird-ass, haphazard FX of “Planet Terror;” Why “Machete was not the A-feature in “Grindhouse,” I’ll never know. “Machete” is probably the best film Rodriguez has made.
Much of the film’s credibility come from the presence of Danny Trejo in the title role. Here we have a man in his 60s, with toguh guy demeanor and a scowling visage that looks like ti had lifetimes of experience etched into it. Indeed, he spent a lot of his youth in prison, and is a street-trained boxer. He’s survived addiction, and is now an actor. When I can look at my action heroes, and want desperately to have lunch with them, the filmmakers have done something right. When Trejo growls that he’s going to kill someone, it feels authentic. This is his first leading role, and I hope he gets more.
Machete (Trejo) is a leathery, put-upon ex-Federale who moonlights as a day-laborer, and who, for the right price, will kill a man. He is hired by an oily politician’s aide named Booth (Jeff Fahey, who should be working more) to assassinate an anti-immigration Texas senator (Robert DeNiro) whose anti-Mexican stanceis so strong, it extends into weekend human hunts. Also trying to enlist Machete’s help is a comely taco truck worker (Michelle Rodriguez, looking foxier than ever) who has connections to a mysterious freedom fighter named “She” (like a feminine of “Che”). Mechete is being eyeballed by a pretty INS agent (Jessica Alba), who ends up finding herself attracted to this resolute, soulful workhorse.
Also mixed up in this is a plain-spoken drug dealer (Stephen Seagal, of all people), an evil border patrolman (Don Johnson of all people), a slutty debutante (Lindsay Lohan of all people), and a bad priest (Cheech Marin).
While some of these people are slumming, and others are clearly trying to give their careers shot in the arm, Rodriguez is careful about not making his exploitation move feel too… exploitative. Each of the performers really digs into their role, and gives it more than they need to. Seagal is actually very funny with his pasted-on accent (even though his fight scenes seem cleverly edited to show that he wasn’t really on set), and Lohan is especially game, spending most of her time onscreen in the nude, visibly topless, or rocking a nun’s costume and a large gun.
This is one of those ridiculously fun movies, like “Shoot ‘Em Up” that knows where to cross the lines, and where to stay behind them. It’s still messy, but I think, in this case, that mess can be somewhat charming. Plus, it cleaves very closely to the damn-the-Man, down-with-Whitey, viva México conceits that were such a powerful marker of the blaxploitation era, only transposed to the Latino set. This makes it a well-rounded B-picture.