Friday, September 03, 2010

Spawn of Grindhouse: Machete

OK ladies, here’s some quality time with the man you can’t resist: Danny Trejo. Actually, he really can carry a picture, but it will probably be an overwhelmingly male crowd checking out his star turn today (and a pretty juvenile audience at that). Expanded from a joke trailer within the exploitation homage Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ Machete (real trailer here) opens wide today.

Just about everything you have heard about Machete is true, except for the half-hearted attempts to back-pedal from its racially polarizing message. Machete is a former federale set up and left for dead by Torrez, a Mexican drug lord played by Steven Seagal (is this why he didn’t do The Expendables?) Of course, Torrez does not have what it takes to kill Machete, but the experience leaves the ex-cop slightly bitter and disillusioned.

Now working as an illegal day-laborer in Texas, Machete is hired by the mysterious Booth to kill a state senator making a name for himself crusading against illegal aliens. It turns out to be another set-up designed to boost the senator’s popularity. However, instead of conveniently dying, Machete launches an all out war against the senator, Booth, their Minuteman-like allies, and the money man behind them all, who wouldn’t you know it, happens to be Torrez.

Co-director Rodriguez can tap dance as fast as he can in friendly interviews, but there is no getting around the fact that his film explicitly argues anyone who favors enforcing our nation’s immigration laws is a racist who deserves to be murdered, preferably in a rather gruesome manner. Yet, that would be fine if Machete were truer to its roots.

Clearly, Machete deliberately models itself on the more militant strain of blaxploitation exemplified by Ivan Dixon’s The Spook that Sat by the Door and Oscar Williams’ The Final Comedown. Far from being liberal, these films are more neo-fascist than anything ever seen in vigilante films like Death Wish. In Door, an African-American CIA veteran leads an inner city insurrection against white America. Despite the premise, the film is not about reveling in victimhood, but expresses a message of self-reliance (albeit a violent and arguably racist one). Though not as empowering, Comedown is witheringly contemptuous of white liberals, depicting them as fair weather allies ready to sell out the revolution as soon as things get hot. Machete the film pretends to share this sensibility, but it is really just posing.

Lacking old school conviction, Machete is constantly taking time out from the sex and violence to check in with “The Network,” an underground social welfare organization run by the disturbingly named Shé. Door’s Dan Freeman would have no patience for this kind of do-gooder liberalism. Of course, the film’s political subplots are not just didactic, they are embarrassingly ill-informed. Imagine a state senator attempting to build an electrified border wall. In real life, the Federal government would have a thing or two to say about that.

If Machete would just stick to its roots it would be a more consistently entertaining film. Machete killing whitey with the help of hot chicks with big guns is nearly bullet-proof material. Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, and Lindsay Lohan all look quite healthy and are hardly shy in the film, each taking a turn with the irresistible Machete. Yet, the Avellan Twins and Cheryl Chin are frankly even more attractive, as a pair of gun-toting nurses and Torrez’s henchwoman, respectively. There is no question, the film understands what will sell it, and it is not the constant advocacy for even more social welfare spending in illegal communities. Yet for some reason, it cannot resist indulging in these relevant “teaching moments.”

On the plus side, Machete is not anti-Catholic. Our anti-hero’s Padre brother surreptitiously tapes his confessional, lusts after women, curses freely, and kills without mercy, but these are all good things in Machete’s world.

Danny Trejo has been a cult star for years because he is stone cold bad. Watching him turned loose is definitely good fun, though one suspects his is more charismatic to the Harry Knowles movie geek set than the Albas of the world. Still, there is no denying his considerable timing and presence in Machete. It would be interesting to see him as a straight action lead in a film not intended as either self-parody or a political statement.

While there is plenty of meathead entertainment in Machete, it frequently undercuts itself with its awkward political posturing. Indeed, trying to be PC in a “chicks with guns” flick is truly self-defeating. Memo to Rodriguez and Trejo: next time stick to the sex and violence. A ridiculously mixed bag, Machete opens nationwide today (9/3), including the Village East here in New York.