Sunday, December 5, 2010
Essentially an expanded version of the fake trailer that Richard Rodriguez attached to Grindhouse in 2007, Machete is designed for people who want their gory action delivered with the least amount of seriousness possible. Our hero, Machete (a scarred and uglified Danny Trejo) is a Mexican Federale turned day laborer who is hired to assassinate the vehemently anti-immigration Senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro). Turns out Machete was set up, used to boost the senator's approval ratings and increase anti-illegal sentiment in the electorate. He becomes a man on the run from the powers that be, stopping only to exercise his considerable sexual prowess on Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Alba before leading an uprising of disgruntled Mexicans against racist American vigilantes. As far as crazy violence, there's the scene where Machete uses a man's intestines to swing out of a window. As far as nudity, there's a topless scene with Lindsay Lohan's character and her mother explore the wonderful world of incest. But this is before Lohan finds Jesus and turns into a nun with a gun.
We're lucky that Rodriguez is so focused on showing things that are absurdly hilarious because Machete could have easily become a tired recreation of 70s exploitation clichés. But Rodriguez cares more about comedy than about making his film look cool. When Machete brings out a weed-wacker to wreak havoc on his enemies, the result is not so much a bloodbath as some good natured slapstick humor. And instead of delivering some sort of badass catchphrase, Trejo deadpans the line, "Machete don't text" with great authority. Fellow exploitation junkie Quentin Tarantino may be cinematic jokester, but he's always making a real movie and always trying for his audiences admiration. Not so for Rodriguez, who doesn't seem to try all that hard, and who blurs the line between cinema and self-parody. Laughs are his main priority.
Self-conscious ridiculousness, however, isn't the only thing that makes Machete worthwhile. Because of it's political message, Machete is further proof that the movies on the margins of the film world can be some of the most incisive. From Freaks, to Dawn of the Dead, to Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song, movies that are violent, trashy, or fall into the "exploitation" category have long been the most critical about American culture and society. Here, Rodriguez actually seems pretty sincere about exposing America's irrational hatred of illegals. At the border, a pregnant woman is shot by the vigilantes so that her anchor baby (as Sarah Palin would say) won't become an American citizen. "Welcome to America," they tell her husband. There's exaggeration of course, but once a movie sends subtlety out the window (swinging on 60 ft. of intestines), the audaciousness of a claim doesn't really matter any more. This is why the sociologists in Cannibal Holocaust could say "I wonder who the real cannibals are"and why Jessicca Alba, in Machete, can say "we didn't cross the border. The border crossed us." Behind the hyperbole, there's some very real frustration.