Tuesday, September 7, 2010

MACHETE don't text! A review of Summer 2010's final action epic!

Well, somehow, it's already September, and already the Fall. The air is getting a bit chillier (even here in sunny LA), the back-to-school season is in fill swing, and the networks are rolling out new TV shows vying for our primetime viewership. Now that I'm in the "real world" - and in LA where its perpetually warm and sunny - the end of summer doesn't have quite the same sting it used to. I don't get that same sickly feeling of looking at the Sunday circulars and seeing "Back to School" ads plastered all over the place. I don't have that sense of desperation to get in one more game of basketball before the snow falls and the driveway ices up. In the world of pop culture though, the seasons still carry a lot of meaning. The end of summer means a temporary respite from the endless stream of whiz-bang blockbuster movies, as studios roll out more serious, Oscar-baiting fare. Usually, by the time September comes around, I'm more than ready for movies that are as heavy on substance as they are on style. Sometimes, when we get summer blockbusters like The Dark Knight or District 9, it feels like there's been a perfect merger of popcorn flick excitement with Oscar-caliber depth. But, after a summer that's had its share of high-concept, low-yield, lower-imagination creative duds, it'll be nice to see new movies from titanic directors like Danny Boyle, Darren Aranofsky, David Fincher, and the Coen Bros this Fall and Winter. That's not to say that this summer was a total flop at the movies. Sure, things started out slow, but at the end of the day Summer 2010 brought us great films like Toy Story 3, Inception, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and The Kids Are Alright. And the summer closed out strong. This labor day weekend, in fact, I saw a couple of kickass action flicks that closed out the summer in brutally awesome fashion. In this post, I'll talk about the first of those two flicks ... MACHETE.


- Machete flat out owns. A hilarious, brutal, badass action movie very squarely in the postmodern Grindhouse style, Machete is a new-wave B-movie that knows exactly what it is and accomplishes exactly what it wants to do: kick ass, take names, and rock your face in for approximately 1.5 hours.

If you saw Grindhouse a few years back, then you were surely shocked and awed by the memorable trailer for the then-nonexistent movie Machete. Danny Trejo as a grizzled, knife-wielding Mexican vigilante? What's not to like? Eventually, word spread that Grindhouse co-director and Machete creator Robert Rodriguez was interested in turning Machete into a full-on feature film. Now, that vision has become a reality, and we finally get to see just what happens when you %&#% with the wrong Mexican.

Machete stars Danny Trejo as a former Federale who, after witnessing his family get violently executed by a sinister gang leader (Steven Seagal), becomes a manual laborer near the American-Mexico border. Caught in the middle of an escalating border dispute between the network of illegal immigrants and the politicians, businessmen, and angry citizens who want them gone, Machete becomes a reluctant hero to the masses and leader of the people's latest revolucion.

The two things that stick out to me most about Machete, in terms of why it works so well, are tone and casting. In terms of tone, Robert Rodriguez and co. absolutely nail the B-movie exploitation vibe that they're going for. I called the movie postmodern, in that the film definitely winks at the audience, and has a lot of moments of very intentional, over-the-top silliness. There's a definite tongue-in-cheek tone to the proceedings, but Rodriguez knows how to craft action and dialogue that's both cartoonishly fun, yet still suitably badass. There are plenty of holy-$#%& moments that will have you smiling throughout. Does Rodriguez sometimes get a little too self-conciously cheesy? Probably - while most of the little B-movie touches work very well, there are a couple bits that are probably a bit too jokey. Overall though, RR finds a pretty good balance between humor and badass drama / action, and leaves you laughing hysterically at Machete's over-the-top antics even as you marvel at just how much ass Danny Trejo and co. manage to kick over the course of the film.

Now, about that casting. The cast in Machete doesn't just sound awesome on paper and in the trailer (where it does sound pretty damn awesome), but each casting decision is pretty much perfect. Rodriguez accomplishes a similar feat to what his buddy, Quentin Tarantino, has done so often. He casts a somewhat motley crew of actors - some stars, some forgotten veterans, some up-and-comers - and puts them in roles that seem perfectly suited for their specific talents. Now, look at something like The Expendables, which was touted as having a dream cast of action movie stars. On paper, it was a pretty cool lineup of action icons. But were any of their characters memorable in the film? Not really, no. In The Expendables, the whole would-be aura of awesome was based on the audience's past history with these actors. "Oh sweet, it's Dolph!" and such. But in Machete, you get those great character moments that have often been a Rodriguez trademark. Danny Trejo finally playing the leading man badass he was always meant to be. Sure, the man is now 66 and craggy like a mountain range, but it's about damn time that the beast was unleashed in a starring action-hero role. Better late than never. Trejo just has that cinematic presence that's been refined by real-life hardship and hard-livin'. The man is legit, and he brought that legitimacy to Machete, and turned it into action movie awesome. Michelle Rodriguez kicks ass as well as an underground revolutionary who runs a Taco truck by day but moonlights as the vigilante She - the leader of The Network - the aforementioned army of migrant Mexicans. Michelle Rodriguez's role here is a perfect example of what Robert Rodriguez does with the casting. We all know Michelle as a woman who likes to play the badass. But I don't know that she's ever really had a role that let her kickass without also being sort of obnoxious and unlikable. RR twists the part just right so that by the end of the film, you can't help but be impressed with Michelle Rodriguez, who looks better, is more likable, and kicks more ass in Machete than she ever has before. Another, more extreme example is Lindsay Lohan. For years now, Lohan's been playing the part of good girl even as her real-life shenanigans made it harder and harder to buy her in the sort of sweet n' innocent roles that made her a star. Well, Robert Rodriguez seems to be saying here "screw it, the Lohan is a crazy, drugged-up hot mess, so let's just go with that." And you know what? - it works. Seeing queen of sleaze Lindsay Lohan embrace her bad-self, playing gun-toting jailbait in a nun's habit? So wrong, and yet so right. I didn't think a movie could make people actually love Lindsay Lohan again, but in Machete, you can't help but root for her. I mean, who better to cast in a sleazy exploitation film than the ultimate example of the former-A-list star-gone-wild? Rounding out the movie's trio of leading ladies is Jessica Alba as a by-the-book immigration officer who slowly comes around to the side of Machete and his revolutionaries. Again, it's exactly the sort of part that Jessica Alba is perfect for. And the best part about a B exploitation movie is that the occasional bit of wooden acting or whatever can simply be written off as part of the fun. Look at Steven Seagal. We all know the guy can't exactly act, and at this stage in his career he definitely no longer looks the part of legit action movie hero (or in this case, villain). But Robert Rodriguez perfectly embraces the inherent cheese-factor of casting Seagal as a Big Bad, going so far as to give him Six Million Dollar Man style sound f/x whenever he unsheathes his trademark sword. Again, it's not just stunt casting, but a satisfying melding of eyebrow-raising casting with memorable characters perfectly matched with the actor.

That said, there are a couple of pretty dynamite performances in this one. Everyone is good, really. But other than Trejo and Michelle Rodriguez, you've got to give a ton of credit to Jeff Fahey as one of the movie's main villains. Fahey, probably best known as intrepid pilot Frank Lapidus on LOST, is stellar here as a corrupt businessman looking to profit from the plight of the beleagured Mexicans. Fahey is charismatic and a lot of fun in this part - I wouldn't be surprised to see him cast in a lot of big films after people see him in Machete. Similarly, Don Johnson (hilariously given an "and introducing ... Don Johnson" intro in the credits) is pretty awesome as a xenophobic police lieutenant who fancies himself a Mexican-killing badass. Another guy who has a boatload of charisma who's well-utilized in the flick. You've also got Cheech Marin in fine form as Machete's man-of-the-cloth brother, Tom Savini (the beady-eyed lunatic who's recognizable from most other Rodriguez movies) as the hilarious 1800-dial-a-hitman named Osiris Amanpour, and, yeah, some guy named Robert De Niro.

I don't know if De Niro quite gains back all of his long-lost mojo in Machete, but he gives it a go. He's entertaining as anti-immigration Senator McLaughlin, although I think he struggles a bit with the pulpy, over-the-top tone of the film. It's definitely a bit surreal to see De Niro mixing it up with Danny Trejo and Lindsay Lohan, and in general, it's just weird seeing the great method actor in this type of film. Nonetheless, it's nice seeing De Niro in a hardcore action movie for a change. He seems to be having a lot of fun with the part.

Meanwhile, there has been some talk about the political content of the film. Some claim to be turned off by the film's pro-immigration political message, and others have panned the movie for glorifying violence and rebellion as a viable response to current political tensions along the border. At the same time, Robert Rodriguez makes the very apt point that Machete is an exploitation movie - the quasi-political plotline is really just there as a loose backdrop to create a fun, kickass movie around. And yet, there is definitely a political component to the movie, and its timeliness only emphasizes that. Personally, I think Machete is just the latest in a long line of B-movies that channel a populist rage into something more fun and over-the-top. It's hard to take anything in the movie too seriously, especially given that the film pokes as much fun at itself - pointing out its own absurdity and that of its heroes - as it does the villainous characters played by Fahey and De Niro. Bottom line though is that this is a crazy action-fantasy. It is, in its own way, a movie for our times, but it's not something to really be taken seriously, either.

All in all, Machete is a blast. This past summer, we've seen a couple of campy films that tried to recapture earlier eras of B-movie glory, but didn't quite hit the mark. The Expendables was nowhere near as fun as it should have been, and was devoid of characters that lived up to the hallowed iconography of its lineup of action stars. Pirahna was halfway there, but in between its glorious, carnage-filled action scenes we had to put up with lots of ABC Family-style teen drama. MACHETE, meanwhile, gets it right. The balance of humor with action is spot-on. The eclectic lineup of actors is well-chosen, and those actors are matched with iconic characters that playfully play off of and/or subvert their already-established personas. Danny Trejo is awesome. Michelle Rodriguez kicks ass in leather and an eyepatch. Lapidus from Lost is one bad mother. Machete is the kind of movie that will have you laughing, clapping, and hollering throughout. It's a crowd-pleaser - an old-fashioned, badass romp that is also well aware of its own absurdity. Machete is, finally, a new-age grindhouse movie done right. And as the credits roll, and as the sweet voiceover guy from that original trailer promises us further adventures of our grizzled antihero (in the form of "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again" ...!), we can only look at our friends and say "dammit all, sign me up."

My Grade: A-

Up next: a review of CENTURION, a wrap-up of the best movies of Summer '10, and a Fall TV Preview. So, yes, keep reading!

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