Monday, September 27, 2010

Do the Machete Mambo

Three years ago, at the beginning of the evening showing of Grindhouse, the twin-bill homage to exploitation films of yesteryear by bro-mancers and directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, there was a trailer - a fake, mind you - of an ultraviolent film featuring a Mexican vigilante aiming to take out opponents of illegal immigration. At the end of the carnage-filled trailer, my immediate thought - like, I imagine, so many who watched that evening - was, God help me, I'd watch that if it was real. Apparently Robert Rodriguez thought so, too. And so, Machete has come to a theater near you.

Danny Trejo: The ugliest lead action star ever
Starring Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo in his first starring role as the titular Machete Cortez (yes, folks, that's apparently his real name), the film doesn't deviate much from it's original trailer, as Machete, an immigrant to the state of Texas after being driven out of his home Mexico by evil drug cartels, is hired off the street to assassinate a Senator with a hard-nosed stance against illegal immigration (Robert Deniro) by an unscrupulous businessman (Jeff Fahey). However, Machete is double-crossed, and soon finds himself surrounded on all sides by enemies, from the Senator and the businessman to a suspiciously-funded group of border vigilantes led by a man named Von (Don Johnson), and the rapidly-expanding drug cartel led by the man who drove Machete out of Mexico, Torrez (Steven Seagal). Machete's allies? The Network, a group of immigrants led by the mysterious She (Michelle Rodriguez), who work tirelessly to help people over the border and find work, and possibly an INS agent by the name of Sartana (Jessica Alba), who is the first to learn of Machete's former Federale status.

The shots are more lovely than Trejo... okay, that's not saying much
The first thing you notice about this film is the mostly-Latin cast. Of course you have Trejo, who is of Mexican descent, and so are Alba and another Rodriguez regular, Cheech Marin. Rodriguez' family is from Puerto Rico, and most of the "good guy" characters, and almost all the supporting and minor characters, are played by Latin American actors. In fact, the only non-Latin actors in the movie portray the bad guys, with Fahey, Deniro, Johnson, Tom Savini, Shea Wigham and Seagal being Machete's opposition, though Seagal does portray a Mexican character. It seems an odd choice, but Rodriguez was probably attempting to not have any Latin actor be the bad guy and instead led them be the universally good characters this time around. The only possible exception to the bad-white-guy rule would be Lindsay Lohan's portrayal of Fahey's character's daughter, but that's a whole can of beans I'll open up later.

Trejo looks for a bear to wrestle
The acting here is mostly poor and cliched, but let's face it: Acting was never to be the main draw of Machete. Trejo is out of his element and league as an actor in the leading role. Usually good as a backup character or supporting role, his muscled frame matches what's needed for a physically-demanding role like this, but the character doesn't have much personality to express in the movie. He's a Mexican ex-Federale with a penchant for blades, that's pretty much it. Trejo doesn't so much act as grimace his way throughout the film, not helped at all by the cliched dialogue. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't know that he could do better, but he comes off as a poor-man's Mexican Seagal instead of a potential future leading actor. Speaking of Seagal, his performance as the drug lord Torrez is laughably bad, speaking as to why he hasn't had a theatrically-released film since 2001.

Rodriguez actually displays some emotion in Machete... but not THAT much
Better are some of the supporting cast, including Michelle Rodriguez, who actually puts hints of emotion into her performance, as opposed to her usual tough-girl act. Alba is solid as well, though her character gets a little off-the-wall towards the end. I can only attribute this to the material given her rather than her talent, which is pretty good. Fahey, who I loved as pilot Frank Lapidus in Lost, also grimaces his way through this film, though he shows a little more charisma than Trejo. Deniro, the only legitimate big name on the cast, is actually surprisingly good as good-old-boy Senator McLaughlin, as he actually seems to act his way through scenes, as opposed to simply showing up. This is a credit to Deniro - who certainly did not have a serious, award-winning role on his hands - to be the consummate professional and give his all to the performance. Johnson is mediocre but with a small enough role that his performance can be overlooked, and Cheech Marin is okay as Machete's priest brother who is also good at handling firearms. At least their characters are important to the movie's plot. Lohan's character doesn't do THAT much, as her drug-addicted Internet whore turned gun-wielding nun is about as necessary as it sounds. I feel bad that Lohan's potential talent has gone to waste in recent years due to personal issues and drug problems, but the director did her no favors with this casting as the role was completely unnecessary. It wasn't even as if the film needed another strong female character, as Alba and Rodriguez had that covered.

There's no excuse for putting Steven Seagal in a theatrical release
The film starts off with a bang, with Machete and his... um... machete cutting a bloody swath through a number of Mexican drug-runners in an amazing opening sequence that features blood, dismemberment, and nudity, each in vast quantities. From this opening sequence, you imagine that the film will be full of amazing sequences, but it's something of a sham. The opener is the best, most exciting part of the film, even with Seagal as part of it. From there, however, the action tones down considerably and we're part of a completely different film, though the action sequences do make sporadic appearances. These scenes fail to match the intensity of the opener, but there are a few imaginative scenes that make up for it (such as Machete using one man's intestines as a rappelling line) and they never fail to pick up the viewer's interest if it's wandered. The sexuality of the film also tones down, with Rodriguez and Alba, while both could be defined as sex symbols, rarely over-provocative in their dress. They did keep in the nude pool scene from the original trailer, but that's the most stimulating the movie gets in that aspect. When the final battle comes, it's disappointing in it's execution, as what could have been more of a big show is muddled into a weak fight, lousy climax, and uninspired ending.

The "Grindhouse Twins" reappear in grand fashion
You have to give credit where credit is due. Robert Rodriguez came out to make HIS movie, a Mex-ploitation with a name-brand cast, a memorable title character, and good tongue-in-cheek humor. But that's also the problem, as Rodriguez, while obviously compelled to recreate the exploitation and blackspoitation films of yesteryear, adds little more than his heritage to a genre that went out of mainstream fashion decades ago. The film is good enough to get by, but it's neither the best action film of the year nor even the best with Rodriguez' name attached to it (that would be the Rodriguez-produced Predators). My friend Ed asked me recently if whether I thought Machete or The Expendables was the better action film this year. My answer? Machete might have had the better humor and a story debating the illegal immigration issue, but it just doesn't compare to The Expendables, as the latter was the better overall film. In the end, Machete might distract you with it's laughs, violence and multicultural cast, but that doesn't make it as good a movie as you might think. It's okay, but not much more than that.
Raise your Machete if need to use the head!


brian said...

I haven't seen this yet but part of the reason I'm looking forward to it is for Steven Seagal's character. I love that he's cast as a Mexican and the villain. And I think he's a pretty entertaining actor as well. Some of his DTV stuff is supposed to be pretty decent, but a lot of his theatrical releases (late 80s & through the 90s) are genuinely good.

Also, regarding:

"Alba is solid as well, though her character gets a little off-the-wall towards the end. I can only attribute this to the material given her rather than her talent, which is pretty good."

Don't you mean talent(s), plural?

Gianni said...

Steven Seagal is one of those actors who does more interesting films than you might at first think. However he's not necessarily a great actor. I know that his ability to make profitable films is what has kept him out of theaters for so many years rather than his acting, but in my opinion he just hams it up here.

Also, I was referring to Alba's acting talent, which would be singular. What were YOU referring to? :P