Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
September 2010

Knives out

Danny Trejo and friends shine in gleefully entertaining throwback, 'Machete'

Machete
20th Century Fox
Director: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Manquis
Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez and Alvaro Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Cheech Marin, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan and Robert DeNiro
Rated R / 1 hour, 45 minutes
(out of four)

Robert Rodriguez is at his best when he's diving into extremely familiar territory and inserting his own imagination into it. Particularly if that territory is a bit on the tawdry side. Trashy postmodern noir (Sin City), tongue-in-cheek exploitation flicks (Planet Terror) - that's where he shines.

So it is no surprise that he shines once again with an idea actually culled from one of his previous films, Planet Terror - his half of his Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. The most popular of the fake trailers that ran between the double bill was for Machete (though my personal favorite was Edgar Wright's Don't!), an extension of the Danny Trejo character that has been appearing in small doses in Rodriguez films for years.

The feature-length version is exactly what we expected from that first trailer - a gloriously over-the-top piece of Mexploitation that affectionately satirizes not only its B-movie predecessors, but the American immigration debate as well. (Well, maybe the immigration satire isn't exactly "affectionate," but it is pretty funny.)

The title character is a former Mexican federale who has now branched out on his own, enforcing his own brand of justice, as a movie trailer might put it. And with the frequency with which he gets double-crossed, he has no shortage of opportunities. Be it a drug lord played by Steven Seagal or a political fixer played by Jeff Fahey - who seem to be having a competition as to who can do the best ironic icy stare - Machete has more than enough enemies to take care of. And that's not even taking into account the corrupt good ol' boy Senator McLaughlin (a hammy Robert DeNiro), a tough talker with a fierce anti-immigrant platform.

I know what you're thinking - one of these guys probably killed Machete's wife and kids, right? Well, obviously.

The way Rodriguez, co-director Ethan Manquis and co-writer Alvaro Rodriguez indulge every genre stereotype they can come up with is one of the joys of Machete. Our hero is a nearly-unkillable figure, a Bond-esque ladies' man (indeed, I believe he beds nearly every woman that appears in the film) and of course he has a heart of gold, to boot.

In order to take down the Bad Guys, Machete teams up with She (Michelle Rodriguez), a revolutionary freedom fighter and leader of an underground network called, appropriately, The Network, that helps immigrants cross the border and find work in the States. Machete also commissions the help of his brother, a priest (Cheech Marin), who is pretty handy with a shotgun or two. (He also appears in the film's funniest - and most blasphemous - shot.) Complicating matters is Sartana (Jessica Alba), a by-the-book immigration enforcement officer who finds herself caught between alliances.

Also along for the ride are April, a socialite-turned-nun played by a frequently topless Lindsay Lohan; and, on the other side of the law, a vigilante border hunter played by Don Johnson.

The kind of genre imitation/homage that Rodriguez and Co. pull off in Machete - and Grindhouse, for that matter - is trickier to pull off than one might think. Plenty of filmmakers know genre and style inside and out, but Rodriguez has the sly wit and macabre imagination that give his films their own peculiar sensibility. There is a scene in Machete that has prevented me from ever looking at a particular internal organ the same way again; it's a sensationally funny moment.

Machete is full of those kinds of moments. Like almost any Rodriguez movie, this one is uneven and sometimes awkward, but his pure filmmaking energy propels us through. And, it must be said, Trejo makes for a magnificently conspicuous action hero. Both his performance and the movie as a whole strike the right balance between parody and sincerity. Irony finds its way through most modern films, in one way or another - but like any other device, it takes the right filmmaker to do it right. Rodriguez is an inconsistent filmmaker, to be sure, but when he's in his comfort zone, tongue planted firmly in cheek, he'll get the job done.

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