Saturday, September 4, 2010

Velveeta Machete

Image borrowed from Machete Trailer
First of all, it seems a bit silly to get pissed off at a movie called Machete for being anything other than what it is. Films named after weapons generally don't deliver more than their titles. Would you expect Oscar greatness from Saw or The Naked Gun or, I dunno, Two By Four: The Movie? OK, Sling Blade proves an exception to the rule. But most of the time it's best to downshift expectations.

Robert Rodriguez's newest guilty pleasure is a busty, bloody, barfing ode to a film genre that exists, I think, mostly in retrospect: Mexploitation. At the same time Machete provides an exemplar for that broader, more generally disappointing crop of ironically detached meta-ploitation films that stretch beyond parody (such as Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood and lamer examples I can't bear to name) to genuine homage.

By homage I'm referring to movies like Alien Trespass and Black Dynamite and, of course, Grindhouse: movies made by auteurs willing to scrounge backlots for discarded camera lenses and old cans of aging film stock - or at least willing to digitally produce the patina of age. Meta-ploitation flicks are purist holidays, a chance for transport back to the grimy Times Square theaters of film-historian legend whose posters are now coveted by serious collectors. Machete, with its scratchy intro and 70s-porn star interludes, shows that Rodriguez is serious about this genre.

By now pretty much everyone knows that Rodriquez directed Machete as a fake-trailer between Grindhouse's features, only to dream of ginning it up into a full-blown feature. Sounds like fun, right? Of course exploitation flicks were famous for jamming all the good parts into the trailers; the movies were never as good as the commercials.

And that's the problem. Machete stretches its plot to feature-length while mistakenly trying to add some depth to the cheesy mixture. Oh, don't worry, it's still got the good parts, which means that we See! "Machete's" wife and daughter decapitated by a slimy drug lord, See! "Machete" double-crossed and left for dead, and See! "Machete" rise up for revenge. [Danny Trejo's character is actually called "Machete," just in case you weren't sure.]

There's no doubt at the end of this grisly Hard-R flick, "If you're gonna hire Machete to kill the bad guy, you better make damn sure the bad guy isn't YOU!"

Yet Rodriguez can't quite leave well enough alone. So with the addition of extraneous subplots and undeveloped secondary characters, "Machete" must become a symbol of Mexican pride amidst the moral and technological wasteland of Gringo culture. A reasonable enough proposition, resulting in occasionally laugh-out-loud dialogue like, "Machete don't text." Hell yes!

But by speaking of himself in the third-person, as he frequently does, Trejo's character becomes somehow less vivid than his trashy trailer-persona. Not quite a walking myth, "Machete" is merely a shill for Rodriguez's half-baked assault on those brain-dead politicians who've turned America's immigration debate into a sad sideshow ("SEE! Headless Bodies in the Arizona Desert!"). Ultimately this flick folds under the pressure of its director's expectations.

Yes, the film features "Machete" swinging on intestines, getting it on with the ladies, and plunking an M134 minigun on a chopper to kill the bad guys. It's the trailer made into a movie. Sometimes it's even fun (the blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene of ice cream cart-venders on the warpath is almost worth the price of admission). But Machete tries so hard to do everything right, it fails to do terribly well.

As I wrote three years ago, Machete looked like it'd be a gas as long as Rodriquez didn't invest the exercise with too much gravity. Produce it as a roadshow, toss it up on aging outdoor screens and in rundown burlesque theaters, I said - just don't expect it to work in a suburban cineplex. Unfortunately that's exactly what the director chose to do, trying to hit several audiences with the same sledgehammer.

The results are a sloppy second-take of a great first trailer. Hell, I think only ten people lined up to last night's show (in admittedly sleepy Scotts Valley). Friday night, and only ten die-hard folks bought tickets for Rodriguez's latest splatterfest. Once again, meta-ploitation fires blanks and misses the target.

Oh well, there's always Hobo With a Shotgun.


detroit dog said...

Really well-written review, Andrew!

I hope to see the movie this next week. I wonder if Chon Noriega and other Latinos have weighed in on this yet; it'd be interested to read.

Have a great holiday weekend!


highway163 said...

Thanks so much for your kind note! I appreciate it.