Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Theaters: Machete

Of all the recent films you would expect to be getting sequels, GRINDHOUSE surely was not one of them; it was a high-profile flop that still hasn’t gotten a DVD release in its “proper” form. And yet, 3 years later, one of its fake trailers has finally been made into a movie that, while it seemed destined for direct-to-video, somehow snuck its way into theaters, where it’s doing not-bad business. The film industry is weird sometimes.

MACHETE was advertised as a pure action trash picture, and so it is, and the fact that it deals rather bluntly with the issue of illegal immigration in America doesn’t change that. We like to think of sleaze as apolitical, and it often is, but at the same time low-budget and grindhouse features have often been used to send messages and make points that would be too polarizing for major productions. Just as “blaxploitation” pictures acted both as cheap entertainment and transgressive social commentary, MACHETE offers sex and gore alongside some rather blunt statements in defense of a growing underclass.

Before this goes any further I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I will be watching the comments section like a goddamn hawk. True, I rarely actually get comments, but in the event that there are, I’ll try to make sure they stay on the subject of MACHETE and not become yet another immigration debate.

Veteran character actor Danny Trejo is the titular Machete, an ex-federal agent from Mexico who, after seeing his family murdered by drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal) has drifted across the border and works as a day laborer. His strength and badassedness are noticed by a man named Booth (Jeff Fahey), who offers him fifty thousand dollars to assassinate Texas state Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro), who is running for re-election on a tough anti-illegal-immigration platform featuring plans for a giant border fence. But it’s a set-up; Booth is actually working for McLaughlin, and he makes sure the assassination merely wounds the Senator, putting him ahead in the polls while the cops are now after a large and threatening looking Mexican. Machete has to unravel the conspiracy to clear his name, and is interested in taking revenge, especially when he learns that the conspirators are connected to Torrez. He teams up with an ICE agent named Sartana (Jessica Alba), as well as Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a taco seller who is also mostly in charge of an elaborate and benevolent immigrant-smuggling group known as the Network.

The immigration debate in this country is so polarizing that it’s genuinely surprising to see a film come out that takes as hard-nosed a position as this. Sure, Hollywood leans left, and there are a lot of TV shows and films where illegal immigrants are portrayed as mostly decent folks wanting a better life (and it’s not like I have evidence to the contrary), but MACHETE goes a step further and says that immigration law as it exists just doesn’t work, and is merely something to be manipulated by anti immigrant forces, businesses wanting cheap labor, and drug lords wanting easy traffic. The constant cries of “But it’s against the law!” mean little to the heroes of this film, since the villains already ignore the law in their own way.

In a way, the blunt pro-immigrant politics fit the picture’s grindhouse origins. Low budget films have long been able to take brazen political stands that bigger films avoid for the sake of appealing to as broad an audience as possible. From Ed Wood arguing against nuclear proliferation in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE to the entirety of the Blaxploitation genre throwing in messages about fighting the white Establishment between gunfights, cheap B-movies were and hopefully remain platforms for subversive political views.

Not that any of this is in any way subtle. After all, another feature of grindhouse movie politics is that they’re often driven in with a sledgehammer, on the grounds that people are there for blood and sex and are not going to complain about lack of nuance. Honestly, it works; I’m a fan of ambiguity but I can admire a bold stance on something if it’s presented right.

As for the blood and sex, there’s plenty, and it’s reasonably well-presented. The action is solid, with some amusingly over-the-top gore effects; the film’s tongue-in-cheek attitude is clear throughout (by comparison, I thought PIRANHA 3-D couldn’t quite make up its mind how campy it wanted to be.) You have villainous thugs debating the ethics of what they’re hired to do, fights with garden implements, and some uncomfortable cell phone placement. The action in the film’s final act gets too messy for its own good, but parts of it are still quite thrilling.

Dominating it all, of course, is Trejo, who at 66 is still never less than fearsome. What’s more, he’s also a genuinely good actor, and though Machete doesn’t speak much he can be quite charming when he wants to be. Jessica Alba manages well in her role, but can’t hold a candle to the still-enchanting Michelle Rodriguez. Cheech Marin has a brilliant turn as Machete’s brother, a priest; Lindsay Lohan plays Booth’s wild-living daughter, and at this point it’s just nice to see that she can successfully complete a movie shoot. I wish her well, the crazy kid.

Robert Rodriguez has become a reliable workhorse, and MACHETE is as strong as I’ve come to expect. It’s kind of ragged, and maybe lacks the sheer immersive power of the original GRINDHOUSE experience, but in the end it delivers on its promises with a certain style, enthusiasm, and maybe a hint of subversion. With this doing all right at the box office, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN starring Rutger Hauer on the way, and THANKSGIVING in development, it seems we’re getting what Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were hoping to start three years ago, despite the inconvenient lack of ticket sales. At this point, though, I just want to see DON’T. Is that too much to ask?

Written by Robert Rodriguez and Alvaro Rodriguez
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis

Grade: B+

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