A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Machete

June 9, 2012

Machete

There is nobody on the planet who knows how to make a better action movie than Robert Rodriguez. He has a very pure sense of the melodramatic zeitgeist of low budget gorefest good times. His half of the Grindhouse film he made with Quentin Tarantino was a prime example. Planet Terror was a rollicking good time filled with over-the-top moments and with a fantastic sense of self-aware humor. In the middle of Grindhouse, as part of the faux seventies flavor of the film, there were a couple of make-believe trailers for films that didn’t exist – and one of them was for the gore filled revenge film “Machete.” Let’s start there: that trailer absolutely rocks.

The trailer played out the plot of a formulaic grindhouse action film that seemed instantly familiar. It was a Charles Bronson style revenge film. A “They should have made sure he was dead” plot about a deadly man with nothing to lose hunting down the men who set him up as the fall guy in an assassination attempt. It was was filled with awesome action and humor moments. Machete leaping out a window of a high rise hanging from a rope and smashing through the window beneath that. Cheech Marin as a vengeful priest. Machete on a motorcycle with a minigun mounted between the handlebars riding out of a giant fireball. I don’t know anybody who saw that preview who didn’t immediately want to see the actual movie (which, of course, didn’t even exist – which was the whole joke.)

The challenge Rodriguez had when he decided to expand that ultra-awesome trailer into a feature film was to find a way to put all those iconic story beats from the trailer into a coherent whole and deliver on the promise of the preview. Unfortunately I have to admit that in many ways it doesn’t feel to me that the film is as much fun as the trailer. It’s clever and entertaining but it also feels watered down, burdened by its own plot and constrained by the compromise of trying to work within the restraints of what was already established about the film by the faux-preview.

What appears to be the biggest problem is that Rodriguez hasn’t made the movie the preview was about. The preview was for a totally cliche seventies revenge film. That’s what I was gleefully anticipating when I bought this DVD. The movie starts out really strong in this mode with a hilariously gore-filled pre-credits sequence showing Machete as a federal agent in Mexico on a one-man rampage against a local drug lord as he storms a hideout in an attempt to rescue a girl (who it is implied is maybe his long lost daughter?) She betrays him and he has to watch helplessly as both she and his wife are killed by the drug kingpin (played fantastically by Steven Seagal attempting a Mexican accent) and Machete is left for dead in a burning building. Everything about this pre-credits bit delivers on the promise of the preview – perfectly catching the feel of the Grindhouse aesthetic from the deliberately poor editing to the cheesy blood spurting special effects to the gratuitous nudity. This was the movie I was looking forward to watching.

After the credits, though, it becomes an entirely different beast. The movie becomes one about the plight of Mexican immigrants in the southwestern US. The bad guys are not so much the evil Mexican drug lord (though he does still play a part) but are a corrupt senator, a group of racist redneck militiamen, and an evil political adviser. I can totally see where Rodriguez is going with this movie – and I respect it and want to see that film. It’s almost a companion piece to Once Upon a Time in Mexico – with its populist uprising against entrenched corruption theme. It just never quite works with the premise laid out in the pre-credit sequence or the trailer. It’s as though Machete got somehow transported out of his own movie and inserted into a completely different film. The real hero of this movie is the revolutionary leader Luz who by day helps immigrants get papers and jobs from her taco truck and by night runs the “network” to give a better life to the downtrodden. Michelle Rodriguez Is fun to watch in the role, and the real pivotal moment of the film for me is when she finally takes up the role of the mythical “She” – a legend she has created to inspire the people. I would totally have watched THAT movie – a kind of female Zorro film. But instead it has to be contorted to fit all the moments from the Machete preview into it. There’s a clash between these two movies that are trying to co-exist, and as a result both are weakened.

Another weakness of the movie is that it feels a little worn out in places. There are some scenes that feel as though they are recycled and re-purposed from other Rodriguez films. There’s the shootout in the girlfriend’s home that cribs from El Mariachi. There’s the assault on the church that feels as though it’s the same scene from Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Even the climactic battle in the redneck compound feels like a watered down version of the populist uprising that caps Once Upon a Time. It was always fun to see Machete finding new ways to stab badguys (and there are a couple great moments – like when he steers a car from the back seat by twisting the machete he’s stabbed into the driver) but that’s not quite enough to really make the movie work.

There’s also the matter of Machete’s supposed love interest. Jessica Alba plays a good hearted but misguided immigrations and customs agent who is investigating Luz and the network. There is much talk of how she is “betraying her own people” and she has a sort of smeared in shoe-polish look that is meant to imply that she’s Mexican but it really, really didn’t work for me. Okay, so Amanda informs me that she does have Mexican heritage, but in the film she appears about as Mexican as Charlton Heston. Some of the stunt casting in the movie is a lot of fun, like Steven Seagal as the drug lord or Robert DeNiro as the southern senator (one of my favorite bits of his is when he drops his southern drawl and admits that he’s not even from those parts and doesn’t even like it there) but Alba never worked for me. There’s also no chemistry whatsoever between Alba and the always awesome Danny Trejo. One of the recurring jokes of the plot is that all the women in the film fawn over Machete and throw themselves at him. He, in turn sort of stoically and resignedly gives in to their advances. I like the humor of a hero who is not so much a womanizer as cursed with irresistible animal magnetism – and I see potential there for some pathos even since he’s lost everyone he ever loved, but it does not make for any kind of romantic sub-plot. And yet the movie tries to imply that there is a romance there. Very odd.

Ultimately my biggest complaint about this movie is that it shows so much promise but can’t deliver on it. I see so much here that I really WANT to love. Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin have been almost running gags in Robert Rodriguez’s work – appearing in cameos and supporting roles in almost every one of his films. Here, finally, they get big leading roles, and I was all ready to cheer and gloat. That the movie doesn’t provide the thrills I was expecting based on the trailer and even based on the first ten minutes of the movie almost feels like a betrayal. In the end I didn’t feel that Machete got his revenge for the death of his wife – even if all the bad guys ultimately did end up dead. Maybe my expectations were set too high – or were mis-directed by the promise of the trailer. Maybe it’s an impossible task to take a minute and a half of awesome iconic moments and build an hour and a half long movie out of them. This is not the movie I was hoping it would be though, and that left me feeling a little sad.

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June 9, 2012 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,

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