Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Back in the 1960s, it was pretty common for DC Comics' editorial staff to come up with a cover concept for a book and then build a story around it. The results were wildly uneven and frequently had little to do with the book's actual story.

This was what I was thinking of as scenes from the original Grindhouse trailer for Machete appeared within the final film. It's not often that a movie gets made with such a "cart before the horse" mentality, but seriously ... movies get made all the time for worse reasons. Aliens Vs. Predator, Catwoman and Superman Returns were all made just to recoup 10+ years of development costs, after all. And let's not get started on Swept Away.

The efforts to squeeze in scenes from the original Grindhouse trailer are actually kind of hilarious if you're familiar with the movie's origins. But let's get something straight: Robert Rodriquez is a terrible storyteller. As a filmmaker he's nothing less than heroic and is a great professional role model, from both a creative and business perspective. He's certainly not lacking in enthusiasm and has an array of resources that would make George Lucas blush (in fact, Rodriquez is probably a perfect hybrid of George Lucas and Roger Corman, for better or worse.)

But, as a storyteller, he leaves a lot to be desired. His movies are adolescent in-jokes with all the emotional weight of a doodle drawn in the margins of an 8th-grade notebook, full of bullets, boobies and mayhem. And Machete is no different from his other endeavors.

Which isn't to say Machete isn't a hoot. Like Lucas, Rodriquez knows that if he stocks his films full of the things his audience expects then a story is almost beside the point. The first 15 minutes of the film are so gleefully violent I was worried I might suffer PTSD. Example: Danny Trejo beheads a badguy with a machete (naturally) an then chops his body in half vertically ... because beheading the bastard didn't make him dead enough. Anyone who buys a ticket to see Machete wants to see Trejo fuck shit up and OH MY GOD they'll get their money's worth.

Trejo gives Rodriquez a lot to work with, which is why the final reel is so frustrating. As Rodriquez becomes more successful as a director he has become more ambitious as a storyteller, even though he doesn't appear to have learned much in the last 15 years. As with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, he's stocked Machete with so many colorful characters that he almost loses track of his protagonist during the final 30 minutes. His cast becomes so top heavy during the final act that the climax looks less like all-out war and more like a celebrity screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Lindsay Lohan arrives dressed as a gun-toting nun, Robert DeNiro jumps into the fray disguised as a Mexican day laborer, Michelle Rodriquez returns from the dead brandishing an eye patch and S&M gear, etc. Again, I'm not suggesting all of this isn't fun ... but there's not much substance the the story. It's possible audiences will forget what they've seen before they ever get to their cars.

The movie's cast has taken a lot of flack and maybe (just maybe) with good reason. The bottom line with a movie like Machete, though, is that it's a parody of exploitation films so solid acting might undermine the film's intentional humor. And if you've got to watch anybody deliver a bad performance (intentionally or otherwise) it might as well be Robert DeNiro. And if Jessica Alba's performance is entirely weightless well, so is the script. It's not like she's out of place.

Machete is Robert Rodriquez's love letter to Danny Trejo. It's not like he doesn't deserve one. The best moments in the film are all his, and my favorite single moment involves Trejo stabbing at a tiny cell phone with his sausage fingers as he sends a text message. If you doubt Trejo's charms check out his interview at The Onion, where he recounts his experiences with Charles Bronson, prison and prima donna actors.

Looking back, it appears I've spent much of this review bitching about Machete's shortcomings. But I had a lot of fun with the movie. It might even be Rodriquez's masterpiece. Just don't expect a transcendent emotional experience. This is all popcorn ... but that's just fine. I like popcorn.

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