A good rule for exploitation flicks is to get busy and exploit. Blood, gore, violence, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll — such films need to come out with it, and get on with it, in the very first scene.
Texas filmmaker Robert Rodriguez knows how to do this, and with Machete — his feature-length spinoff of a make-believe movie’s trailer in Grindhouse — he gets going from the get-go.
At the start, beleaguered but honorable Mexican “federale” cop Machete (Danny Trejo) suffers the kind of bloody injustice which can propel a plot from then on. He then winds up across the border in Austin, where a corrupt state senator (Robert De Niro) is calling for a brutal, racist, border-wall crackdown on illegal immigrants.
What follows is not just a lurid revenge fantasy that’s more wryly amusing for its cartoonlike excesses than it is truly disturbing (you didn’t really think Trejo could use a victim’s entrails as a rope, did you?). Oh no. It’s also got thematic meat on its sharp bones in the form of a sermonette — or sermon — on today’s southern border focus on racial profiling.
The only trouble is, Machete gets bogged down by its fitting yet repetitious preaching about the film’s good guys (mistreated Mexican illegals who deserve a fair chance). We get the message early on, but then keep getting it, hammered into our heads like its blade-wielding hero making sure a victim’s dead.
Machete also becomes so enthralled with its perversely grandiose gut-grabbing that it forgets another rule of exploitation filmmaking: After you’ve gotten busy and exploited, don’t forget to leave ’em laughing (or gagging). In short, keep it short.
Rodriguez fails to do this, spinning his torrid tires in ruthless brutality laced with Hispanic consciousness-raising for one hour and 45 minutes. That’s at least 15 minutes too long, and it hurts his film, new on DVD today from Fox.
But not much else hurts Machete, including the fact that stone-faced Trejo is no great shakes as an actor (the solution: he gets few lines) and the fact that Rodriquez relied on so many actors who are has-beens, disreputable or dysfunctional — yet got the most out of them.
That includes Lindsay Lohan as an allegedly “beautiful” model type (that’s what the script says) who looks more like a washed-up alley-way hooker (sorry, but it’s true); Steven Seagal in a typically whispery role as a Mexican crime lord; Don Johnson (“introducing” goes his credit, inexplicably) as a cooly callous border patrol vigilante; and Michelle Rodriguez as a steely Hispanic superwoman.
She, especially, is outstanding in the kind of tough-gal role that Rodriguez and his Grindhouse co-conspirator, Quentin Tarantino, adore. (The movie, in fact, could have been all about her.) And Jeffy Fahey and Cheech Marin impress in their bad-bad-guy and good-murderous-priest parts. (Also, it’s good to see Romero makeup maestro Tom Savini as a hitman.)
The action is state of the art for this sort of thing: overheated and over the top but always deliriously entertaining despite itself. And marquee-value actors like De Niro and Jessica Alba give the film some heft whenever amateurism creeps into the cast. (Don’t miss Alba’s deleted scenes playing her federal agent’s slutty twin sister. Nice contrast work.)
Shot in Austin, which it showcases adroitly, Machete — aside from its overkill length — is just what we wanted it to be when its mock trailer enlivened Grindhouse.
So I say, well done, Robert Rodriguez. Here, as in that film, you got busy and exploited (unlike amigo Quentin Tarantino, who dallied in dialogue in his half of Grindhouse). And you entertained the hell out of me.
Now we can look forward to the (hopefully not make believe) sequels promised at the end: Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again.
Now that’s exploiting!