Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Cutting Kind

Machete [***1/2]

Robert Rodriguez's Machete comes dangerously close to being the first wholly successful competitor in the recent throwback sweepstakes that has beset cinema since mid-August. First, Stallone took the can't lose premise and casting of The Expendables and made a mediocre disjointed mess. Next, Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3-D saddled us with its most boring characters for the biggest chunk of its running time then almost made up for it with a full-on blood bath and great Christopher Lloyd appearances. Sure there were boobs (and good ones), but that doesn't make up for the wealth of Jerry O'Connell the movie gives us. Then along comes Robert Rodriguez's finally feature-length Machete. The first theatrical trailer didn't quite have the trash appeal of the original, but I was hoping for the best and largely it delivers.

The plot such as it is concerns Danny Trejo as the titular ex-Federale betrayed by his boss and displaced to America after a drug lord murders his wife. He becomes the patsy of a conservative senator's advisor (Jeff Fahey) in an attempt to assassinate said senator so that his chances at election rise exponentially and his border closing initiative can begin. The initiative stands to greatly benefit the aforementioned drug lord (Steven Seagal) and this betrayal greatly benefits Machete because it puts everybody who needs Machete's blade up their ass right in his path.

Machete ends up becoming allied with an ICE agent (Jessica Alba) and a mysterious woman named She (like Che (Michelle Rodriguez)) to help him fight his war. Machete is a big bad ass who really doesn't need help with the physical stuff but the scope of betrayal necessitates that he make friends whether he likes it or not. She runs a group called the Network that helps illegals find jobs, feeds them when they have no work and helps them escape from hitmen in a crowded hospital.

Danny Trejo has been around since the days of Desperado and with his first starring role it's nice to see that Trejo really has talent and charisma rather than just a look that Rodriguez finds gives his films character. He's a really authentic part of the Rodriguez verse, he's got pretty good deadpan comic timing and when he says the classic "you just fucked with the wrong Mexican" line you believe it. The guy's wife was killed right in front of him, bosses, beautiful ladies and politicians betray him and now he's used somebody's guts as a rope. I'd say the entire ordeal is starting to wear on him. He's also pretty good with machetes, blows people's brains out with relative ease too. He's pretty much who I want Antonio Banderas to grow up to be. Most of the other questionable casting actually works out pretty well. Big gambles were made on Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan and they actually pay off. Lohan's character is saddled with a lot of the same real life baggage she has (i.e. someone in serious need of rehab with a possibly perverted father and skanky mother) and while I won't say it makes her performance raw or honest I think it made it easier for her to come to work prepared. Jessica Alba might be too pretty to be plausible but ever since she got her face pummeled in by Casey Affleck I'm more willing to give her and her work a chance. I think one of these days somebody is honestly going to figure out what purpose she best serves in a movie and give her the right role.

Sadly, though, Machete still performs a major misstep. As the film goes on and gains momentum it isn't simply about revenge it becomes a film about the immigration issue. As Machete pursues his quest for revenge the myth of himself grows and he starts to represent the downtrodden masses caught between the worlds of their nightmares and their dreams. Machete's allies take up arms alongside him and this leads to an all-out actual war. Machete's personal revenge is given short shrift and the movie's politics take center stage. I don't have any grievances with what the film has to say on the issue of immigration. When Lindsay Lohan's character comes gunning for DeNiro's uber-conservative senator and then, upon achieving her goal, literally shoots the guns from the hand of every man fighting to help along the movie's climax I appreciated what was being said: another war isn't going to solve this problem. On the other hand, in a damning way, I think it was also being suggested that without a personal stake in the fight we should just walk away. Perhaps leaving the border fence question as an eternally debatable one is better than turning it into an avoidable tragedy.

The issue seems too big for this particular movie, not that the movie doesn't have the right to address it, but the importance of this particular discussion is too much for the movie to bear. On the one hand I look like I don't care about the larger themes of the film, but I do. I also wanted the satisfaction of a revenge film and I don't quite get that. It's a double edged sword this film.

However, if we're going to get the two promised Machete sequels I'll take him in whatever strength we get him: avenger, superman, folk hero. But whatever evolution he undergoes I hope the ending of this film serves as a reminder that every transition can only bear so much weight on its shoulders.

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