On DVD: Machete

Few films can brag that they were adapted from a fake grindhouse movie trailer, which is exactly what makes “Machete” special. Few filmmakers can pull off an exploitation flick quite like Robert Rodriguez and although “Machete” will never be a cult classic, Rodriguez is to thank for helping popularize this often laughed-at sub-genre. There are a growing number of movie fans who enjoy mindless films that don’t take themselves seriously and “Machete” is one of the leaders in this revolution.

Rodriguez is notorious for developing long-standing working relationships with a number of his actors and “Machete” serves as a good chance to give them some work. One of his best friends in that regard, Danny Trejo, gets his first huge starring role as Machete Cortez, a federale whose high sense of honor led him to a betrayal and the death of his wife at the hands of Mexican drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal).

Fast forward three years later and Machete lives in Texas as your typical illegal day laborer, although he misses his blade dearly. When a man named booth (Jeff Fahey) pulls him off the street and tells him he’ll get $150 K if he assassinates a local anti-immigration senator (Robert De Niro). Machete nods silently in agreement, but the job was a setup and Machete must go on the run from a corrupt politician in addition to an ambitious immigration officer (Jessica Alba).

How often do you get a cast that includes Alba, De Niro and Seagal? It’s more mind-blowing when you mention the rest of the cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson and Lindsay Lohan. The eclectic cast makes “Machete” that much more interesting of a watch.

The film roars off to a gory and delightfully cheesy start that includes slicing, dicing and Machete carrying a naked girl over his shoulder. The setup of the film’s events surprises in terms of being equally amusing and slightly intriguing. The script does a really nice job capturing our interest that the moment of obnoxious mayhem comes as a bit of a surprise.

But after a scene in which Machete is taken to a hospital in critical condition, rips off tubing and then slices some guys up with surgical tools (followed by a window escape using a man’s intestines as a rappelling rope), “Machete” hits a plateau. Despite some funny moments, “Machete” fails to surprise us and gets a bit lost in illegal immigration satire. The political agenda is held up by Alba’s character and sadly, the girl can’t even act dramatically when the film she is in is a joke. It’s painful watching her try to act not so seriously — I’ve given up hope on her credibility as an actress unless she’s in something melodramatic with fight scenes.

It’s hard to tell exactly how “Machete” loses some of its luster, but the events and the techniques simply become predictable, even if they’re as over-the-top as when Machete’s brother, a gun-toting priest played by Marin, gets nailed to a cross. Although amusing, it doesn’t take us by surprise. Even the final battle royale against a bunch of “wetback haters” doesn’t take the film to the next level as the buildup drags and the payoff is unclever carnage. The only strengths in the end are the carefully orchestrated deaths that exploitation films are known for: giving the bad guys what they deserve.

Rodriguez definitely intended, for the sake of the genre, to beat us over the head with visual clues as to what ridiculousness will happen next, but rather than play it up, it stays a bit subtle and the anticipation isn’t there. By the climax, the film has become a tiresome exercise in poor visual effects and reprises of previous techniques. However, only Rodriguez could assemble the cast and dream big enough to make a B-movie with an “A” feel.

3/5 Stars

Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Written by Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodríguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey


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