Thursday, September 9, 2010

Schlock and Awe: MACHETE

The latest film from Robert Rodriguez, this time sharing director’s credit with editor and special-effects artist Ethan Maniquis, is Machete. It’s based on a fake trailer that he created to show before Planet Terror, his faux 70’s exploitation film that was half of Grindhouse, his genre double-feature throwback collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. But you don’t need to keep up with all the levels of meta filmmaking at work here to enjoy Machete. Sure, it’s loud and sloppy, simultaneously overstuffed and underdeveloped, but this movie is alive, ambulatory with a crazed B-movie spirit and chockablock with goofy, groovy grindhouse gore. It’s the type of movie that, when you hear a doctor explaining the length of the human intestine, you know that it will be valuable information in an upcoming action set-piece.

The great, craggy Danny Trejo slashes his way through the film as the mysterious man known only as Machete. He’s out for revenge on not just one, but two clearly defined revenge paths. Machete’s out to avenge the death of his wife at the hands of an evil, samurai-sword-wielding Mexican drug lord (Steven Segal, of course) and out for revenge against a double-crossing political slimeball (Jeff Fahey). Then again, to put the plot so simply is to ignore great swaths of exposition that are occasionally relevant to the forward momentum and ultimately needed for the film’s big shootout climax.

This racing explosion of schlock and awe manages to work in plot threads about a sort of Underground Railroad for illegal immigrants led by Michelle Rodriguez and a government agent who is on her tail and is played by Jessica Alba. There’s also a group of vigilante amateur border patrollers led by Don Johnson and a red-meat xenophobe senator, none other than Robert DeNiro, who whips up his supporters with ugly racism. After all of that, there’s still room enough in the movie for the troubled wild-child played by Lindsay Lohan and the Catholic priest played by Cheech Marin. One of them is playing against type.

The cast gets to riff on their personas just as much as the movie itself riffs on its inspirations. Trejo steps up and ably fills a role to which a career of playing tough-guys has led him. Lohan’s entrance is great, as is her character’s arc, which is a perfect metaphoric blueprint for a comeback. Segal is the most purposefully entertaining he’s been in a long time, maybe even ever. Fahey, fresh off his scene-stealing stint on Lost, is a perfect growly villain, DeNiro is fantastic, if a little underused, and Don Johnson is made exceptionally sinister with his eyes constantly hidden behind gleaming sunglasses.

This is easily Rodriguez’s best film since Spy Kids, though that says more about the weakness of Rodriguez’s last decade of work. Machete is a rush of junky influences with a spirited 70’s vibe. With so many plot threads and character types mingling with the brute-force efficiency of the bloody action beats, the movie is inescapably messy. But those action scenes are more fun than not, hyper and stylish while still perfectly understandable in construction. And the movie’s a wicked satire that’s, you know, about something real, current and tangible and actually dares to draw blood with its bite. This is sledgehammer-satire that moves with a force and purpose that agitates for basic human rights and sensible immigration policy. The satire’s not exactly coherent, and it’s certainly not clearly explained, but it’s sharp and hilarious nonetheless and the images have lingering power. A priest’s bank of surveillance monitors is arranged like a crucifix. A senator’s racist rant of a campaign commercial intercuts footage of border crossings with extreme close-ups of wriggling insects. A heavily armed Machete walks unharmed into a villain’s house because the guards think he’s the gardener. This isn’t exactly great art – it’s not even an entirely consistent piece of action filmmaking – but it has a raw excitement that carried me along and kept me entertained.

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