Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cuts Like A Knife

I liked Machete a lot. This is odd because it has an unrealistic plot and loads of extreme and gratuitous violence and anyone who's read more than three posts here knows my distaste for such things. Filmmakers often try to excuse their stupid movies by saying that said movies were meant to be fun and that you're just a tightass who only likes Merchant-Ivory movies if you walked into the theater and were unable to watch Transformers 2 or 2012 or Clash of the Titans without having your tastes offended and your intelligence insulted. What sets Machete apart is that this was, in fact, made to be a fun movie. Director Robert Rodriguez is a talented filmmaker who knew what he wanted to do and was able to do it whereas the movies mentioned above were corporate product cobbled together from market research, focus groups and notes from studio executives.

Fans of both Rodriguez and old time exploitation films immediately recognize Machete as a full on tribute to the low budget exploitation films of the 60s and 70s. Hell, it's really hard to miss if you ever saw the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse and noticed what was at the time a trailer for a nonexistent movie called Machete. The current movie is actually faithful to the Grindhouse trailer and manages to include most of the same actors.

All the exploitation film trademarks are here. Simplistic characters: check. Dumb plot: check. Cheap production values: check. Mind you, a great deal of time, money and artistry went into making it look like it had cheap production values. Rodriguez also had to hire some actors with enough skill to walk the line between high camp and bad acting. Robert DeNiro and Jeff Fahey really threw themselves into their roles too and looked like they were having fun playing a racist Senator and a criminal who, when he wasn't shooting people in the face, was lusting after his own daughter. I'd also like to congratulate Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan for managing to look great while wearing very little. Lindsay Lohan deserves special praise for her virtuoso performance as a rich, spoiled, hedonistic, out-of-control drug addicted daughter of a criminal. I don't know how she managed to pull it off.

Grindhouse movies had various genres. Horror, sex, and science fiction films were some. Machete is set in what was probably the most common one: the revenge flick. The perfectly cast Danny Trejo plays the titular character, a Mexican Federale whose wife and child were killed by a drug kingpin named Torrez (Steven Seagal). Torrez then set the building Machete was in on fire but, unfortunately, he went to the Bond Villain School of Evil and didn't confirm whether Machete made it out alive. Three years later, Machete winds up an illegal immigrant in Texas until fate comes along and presents him with a way to make money and to gain his revenge.

I guess that's all you need to know about the plot. Well, except that it's staunchly pro-immigration, something that's bothered a lot of people as this over-the-top example shows. I suspect that Rodriguez is staunchly pro-immigration but what seems to have escaped most critics is that taking up issues is exactly what exploitation films used to do. Topics like drugs, discrimination and prison conditions were prime fodder for the Grindhouse. These movies taught us that the best way to society's most pressing issues was to get a big knife and an AK-47 and use them to stab and shoot some ridiculous, one-dimensional characters and that's exactly what Robert Rodriguez did here in Machete.

Machete works as a straight out action film and a tribute to a style of filmmaking that, through no fault of its own, managed to produce some very good films. I think it's one of the better movies I've seen all year.

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