Theatrical Review: Machete

A former Mexican Federale gets caught up in a plot to assassinate a United States Senatorial candidate and now he’s out for revenge.

That’s all that I’m going to say about the story to the newest film from co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Manaquis, the long-awaited Machete.

Well, it’s not really been that long a wait. The character Machete first made his appearance as the first of the four “fake” trailers in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse back in 2007. For me, Grindhouse was the best movie of the year in 2007, it’s just a shame that it failed miserably at the box office. Grindhouse celebrated the exploitation film genre through both it’s content and it’s presentation. It promised a different experience to a whole new generation of moviegoers that just didn’t embrace it theatrically, and it was a shame, I really wanted to see that continue as it’s own series of films. But y’know, I get it’s failure, it didn’t do anything wrong (in fact it did everything right) it was just something that people did not want to see (sort of like the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World of 2007, a movie that I myself just didn’t care to see).

But fortunately, that hasn’t stopped some creative minds from returning back to the exploitation genre, and while they don’t carry the bells and whistles of Grindhouse recent films like Piranha 3D and The Last Exorcism carry a similar sensibility, so it gives me hope.

Now on to Machete itself. After a nice opening sequence that sets up Machete’s origin (and is a nice salute to Grindhouse – set in 2007 and using similar techniques with film scratches) we move to today and the start of the plot that I described in the first paragraph. Once we’re in the present day, the film dispenses with Grindhouse scratchiness and remains clean throughout. That’s of course just with the quality of the presentation, the sensibility is still there. The rest of the movie is pure exploitation goodness, complete with massive amounts of violence, over-the-top characters and just a wee bit of gratuitous nudity. And it is a lot of fun, though I do have a couple of criticisms, both pretty minor.

This even takes the time to offer it’s own commentary surrounding illegal immigration today. Now this isn’t new in the exploitation genre, a lot of the films made back in the day had their little social message as well, they just didn’t get overly caught up in it, and they were wise to do so. If you’re going to see this and know what you’re getting into, then what you want to see is a very cool title character doing the things that he does best, which is doling out his own special brand of justice. Machete delivers that in spades and it has a great time doing it. This isn’t a blatant comedy, but it’s certainly not meant to be taken seriously either.

What is serious though is the level of talent this film has going for it, and most of it comes from Machette’s creator and co-director, Robert Rodriguez who has his hand in everything including the movie’s excellent score and it’s suitably appropriate visual effects. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t cook for the crew at some point either. To me, he’s one of the most talented creative forces in movies today- he knows what he wants and he always gets it and he’s willing to put himself into it fully to get it.

Veteran character actor Danny Trejo gets a big moment to shine as the title character. Now Trejo is the real deal and if you want proof of that, then you should check out the excellent documentary about him and his past life Champion (and if you have Netflix Instant Play, that film is available to watch right now). He’s a definite tough guy and this film just amplifies that. He’s there to be super-cool and that’s it. And he is, his look is terrific and whenever he gets ready to do his thing, it’s right on the money.

That same image though presents some limitations and that’s mostly with driving things forward. That comes through with the other characters. Jessica Alba plays an immigration officer who not only represents the legal side of the immigration argument, but she looks damn good doing it. Robert DeNiro and Don Johnson play two of our villains of the piece. DeNiro plays the Senator who’s been the victim of the assassination attempt due to his views on illegal immigration. He’s a pure cartoon here (as are all of the villains) and one of the funnier bits showed just how quick he was to change his point of view when his back was up against the wall (well, maybe he’s not such a cartoon after all). Johnson is much more single-minded, and while I don’t think he necessarily did anything to stand out, he didn’t do anything wrong either and it was still fun to see him here.

My favorite members of the cast though (aside from Danny Trejo) are Jeff Fahey, Steven Seagal and Michelle Rodriguez. Fahey plays the Senator’s aide and he’s just having a ball here. Even more than the other villains, Fahey brings just a little more of a sleaze factor to the whole thing, and I tend to eat that stuff up. Steven Seagal gets his first villain role with this movie playing the crime lord Torrez who’s at the root of Machete’s origin. Again, like Fahey, he’s really chewing the scenery and looks like he’s having a grand time doing it, and that does translate. He also faces Machete in a final fight and this is where one of my minor criticisms lie. While the fight is good, I wish it had been just a little more over-the-top than what it is. Ten years ago, it would’ve been. It’s well-played considering the actors’ ages, but I would’ve liked a little more. Michelle Rodiguez plays Luz, the leader of the illegal immigration circuit. She looks terrific, better than I’ve ever seen her look on-screen before and she just has real presence in the movie. To me, one of the film’s signature images belongs to her, when she exits from an ambulance clad in skimpy black leather ready to kick ass and take names.

My other criticism also comes form another member of the cast, and that’s with Lindsay Lohan being cast as Fahey’s daughter. When we’re first introduced to her, she’s being “rescued” from her father from a night of debauchery and it’s basically hard to take that scene seriously in light of her recent problems. Now sure, you could say it’s authentic, but unlike Trejo’s authenticity, this works against things. It’s not unbearable by any means and really, the problem’s not necessarily entirely hers or the crews. It’s more a matter of unfortunate timing.

Machete is a lot of fun but, like the other recent exploitation styled films, it won’t be for everybody. Some will get caught up in the film’s social message, and I can understand how that might hurt everything for them. I had a great time with it and certainly wouldn’t mind at all to see sequels. It’s great to see the Grindhouse still going with something like this and again, I can just hope that it will continue and I’ll leave with my plea to Rob Zombie to please, please, please make a full-length feature of Werewolf Women of the S.S.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

05. September 2010 by Darren Goodhart
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