Saturday, September 4, 2010

'Machete' is a well-made exploitation retread

Machete (2010)
Starring: Danny Trejo, Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan, and Steven Seagal
Directors: Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A former Mexican police officer (Trejo) is betrayed by corrupt superiors to a powerful drug kingpin (Seagal). He ultimately flees to the United States, crossing the border secretly and disappears into the semi-hidden underworld of illegal aliens. Yet, Fate draws him into conflict with the drug lord once again, when a sinister political operative on his pay-roll(Fahey) attempts to make him a patsy in a staged assassination of a state senator whose career is in trouble (Di Nero).

This seems to be the summer of throwbacks. First there was "Predators", the movie that took the "Most Dangerous Game"-hunting aliens back to their jungle roots. Then there was "The Expendables", which set out to recreate the feel of a late 1980s action flick. And now there's "Machete", a film that casts itself in the mold of a 1970s exploitation flicks. While there hasn't really been much new under the sun since circa 1965, I don't know that "hey, we have nothing original to offer!" has ever been quite such a marketing point.

Not that it's necessarily bad, at least in the specific cases of the three films mentioned above. All three succeed quite well at what they set out to do--which was to be entertaining yet not-terribly-original action films. So long as the movies are good, and the audience is warned up front that there's nothing fresh between the main title card and the end credits crawl, I have no issue with them being derivative.

And "Machete" is about as derivative as they come. It's like one of the sleazier blaxploitation flicks where small-time hoods or drug-pushers were glorified and set up as if they were heroic figures, because, in this one particular story, they were actually pitted against bigger scum-bags than they were--more evil criminals and corrupt politicians and cops. (And the only way I could fully root for The Network, the group dedicated to smuggling illegal aliens across the United States border with Mexico and find them crap jobs just one step up from slavery, so a select few might be able to work their way into a decent living, is to ignore the fact that the reason they come into conflict with Steven Seagal's drug kingpin is the detail offered in passing that The Network itself is funded by illegal drug smuggling and the money generated by it.)

As for the acting, it's also in line with what you'd expect in a movie derived from the 1970s exploitation/blaxploitation films. Almost everyone is being overly dramatic and chewing up the scenery to a degree that would have you rolling your eyes if they were doing it in any other kind of movie.

Robert Di Nero, Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, and Danny Trejo--even if that last one goes without saying--all give over-the-top performances that are in perfect keeping with the genre. Cheech Marin, Don Johnson (even if I'm not sure I get the "introducing Don Johnson" joke in the credits), and Steven Seagal are also fun to watch, each giving performances of the kind we know they're capable based on some of their best previous work. Heck, the directors even manage to make Seagal look good, even if it's plain to the sharp observer that he isn't doing much in the way of physical activity; he was probably wise in choosing this project over Stallone's as he gets to have a big dramatic final scene. Maybe he'll be smart and trade in the acting for strictly behind-the-scenes functions... we can almost see the old Steven Seagal--the guy who was in "Marked For Death" and "Under Siege"--in the performance he gives here. It would be nice if he would let this stand as his final acting job.

Of the major featured players, only Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan disappoint.

Perhaps I can't say that Alba disappoints, because she is as good here as she was the last time I saw her, in "The Love Guru." But she's completely out of place. Alba seems to be the only performer who isn't "playing to the gallery," who isn't going way over the top. Her performance would be far better suited on an episode of "Law & Order" than this film. (Actually, as I think about it, the only time I remember really liking Alba in a part was "Into the Blue". Maybe all the bare flesh addled the brain?)

As for Lohan, she serves no purpose in the film other than to appear as a slutty character that seems to fit right in with the image she's developed over the past few years. It's the sort of part the likes of John Carradine took during the 1970s at the end of his career, parts that were little more than glorified cameos, parts that didn't add anything to the film but merely traded on Carradine's name. The film would have been better without Lohan's character, because it adds nothing except the opportunity for everyone to chuckle at Lohan and perhaps reflect on wasted potential.

The only other problem with the film is uneven, choppy pacing. There are times, usually during or leading up to unimpressive scenes with Lohan and Alba, where the film drags. Sometimes these slow points arise from badly conceived comic relief (such as the two security guards exchanging sage views on Mexican gardeners), and other times they are pointless scenes of expository dialogue that I'm sure the writers and directors believed were "character development" (such as when Alba's I.C.E. agent character finds The Network's headquarters) but whenever they occur, you will start to be very bored and wish that the film would get back to the shootings and stabbings.

Speaking of shooting and stabbings, this is ANOTHER movie that features computer-generated blood-splatter. It even features computer generated bullet impacts--and badly matched bullet impacts at that, as we're shown the top of a church pew get riddled with bullets in one shot, yet no pews are damaged in later ones. The effects are a little less obvious than they were in the low-budget films that pioneered this technique (or in recent big-budget ones like "The Expendables" or "MacGruber"), but you can still tell cartoon gore from old-fashioned syrup-spray.

Bottom line, this is not a perfect movie. Then again, neither were the films it is trying to emulate... even if those old timers could probably have made 20 movies on the budget of this single film. It's worth checking out if you enjoy blaxploitation flicks--because that's what this is exactly like, only with Mexican illegal aliens and others of Mexican descent standing in for the black characters.

Fun Fact: Exactly 20 years ago, Steven Seagal's character beat the hell out of Danny Trejo's character in the opening scene of "Marked For Death". This has been a rematch long in the making.