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Sunday, January 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2010)

15. Machete
Co-directed with Ethan Maniquis

From the moment fans first got a taste of “Grindhouse,” they immediately started hoping the fake trailers would be turned into actual movies. Robert Rodriguez obviously shared this desire. The “Machete” fake trailer has an origin story of its own. Upon meeting Danny Trejo back in the nineties, Rodriguez immediately imagined him as the Charles Bronson-like star of a long-running series of “Mexploitation” movies. (Considering how lucrative blaxploitation proved for a while, it is surprising there hadn’t been many prior attempts to similarly capitalize on the Latino audience.) The “Grindhouse” trailer pushed that long simmering idea too close to reality for Rodriguez and Trejo to resist anymore. An actual feature length “Machete” movie would slice onto theater screens in 2010.

Machete Cortez was a Mexican Federale agent. While attempting to take down drug kingpin Torrez, he is betrayed. His wife, daughter, and partner are killed and he’s left for dead. Three years later, he’s crossed the border and is working in Texas as a day laborer. This is were he’s chosen by Michael Booth, who pays him to assassinate anti-immigration Senator John McLaughlin. This is also a set-up, the assassination planned to fail in order to boost McLaughlin’s plummeting approval ratings. On the run from Booth’s, Machete teams up with Agent Rivera, a sympathetic ICE agent, and uncovers an attempt by the drug trade to manipulate border issues for profit.

Robert Rodriguez is not the only director credited on “Machete.” His frequent editor/assistant editor Ethan Manipuis is co-director. (This is, thus far, Manipuis only directorial credit.) Despite that, it’s hard to see another authorial voice at work in “Machete.” At the time, some critics derided “Machete” as Rodriguez totally abandoning the glints of genius seen in “El Mariachi” and “Sin City” and giving into his most juvenile instincts. This is, after all, a movie where a naked woman removes a cell phone from her vagina within the first ten minutes. It’s a film devoted entirely to absurd violence and adolescent titillation. While Rodriguez may very well be wasting his potential with projects like this, I think he’s making exactly the kind of films he wants to make.

The director’s most obvious goal with “Machete” was to make an ideal vehicle for Danny Trejo. I’d say he definitely succeeded in that regard. Trejo doesn’t speak much throughout “Machete.” What dialogue he does have is gruffly delivered, quick one-liners or little bits of information. Mostly, Trejo’s unforgettable face and physicality does the talking. He glares and growls while killing the bad guys, as much pit bull as man. While Trejo is an actor of considerable charm, there’s no doubt that he knows how to make this kind of tough guy part compelling. Being a Bond-like figure of male fan fantasy, Machete is also irresistible to women. The movie even makes that believable, as Trejo’s forceful toughness is certainly rugged and interesting.

Despite obviously being intended as a down-and-dirty exploitation homage, Rodriguez also hoped to squeeze some social commentary into “Machete.” A lot of which comes off as shockingly relevant here in 2019. The primary antagonists of “Machete” is a politician and his team who wants to build a barrier between America and Mexico. Who uses xenophobic and heated language, targeted at illegal immigrants. Who, at the same time, employs numerous illegal immigrants on his property. Rodriguez goes one step further, making these racist policies aligned directly with Mexican drug cartels. All the talk of border control is actually a scheme to make a select few – racist old white guys and criminals – even more rich and powerful than before. It's scarily on-points for our current world, even if Rodriguez has a heroic ICE agent as a primary character.

Yet “Machete” also has the director indulging in a bad habit he's had trouble breaking since at least “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Despite being a throwback to simple, down-and-dirty exploitation flicks, “Machete” has a seriously overstuffed plot. The film has about five plot lines, all of them intertwining to varying degrees. There's Machete's quest of vengeance against Torrez. There's the story of ICE Agent Sartana and her attempt to get to the bottom of things. We learn about Senator McLaughlin's involvement with a group of border patrolling vigilantes, which backfires on him. Also in there is Luz and the legendary She, leader of a network that helps illegals cross the border. We're not done yet, as Rodriguez also includes a subplot about Booth and his daughter, who is attempting to launch an internet porn career. The writer/director even includes a tiny subplot about a pair of dishwashers in a Mexican restaurant. That's a lot to keep track of and seems at odds, sometimes, with the modest goals “Machete” sets for itself.

And, sometimes, in his quest to get so much story on screen, Rodriguez just straight-up forgets about stuff. Despite ostensibly being his main motivation, the loss of Machete's wife and daughter never seems to affect him much. When he finally faces down Torrez again, there seems to be little personal about their conflict. This is not the only family Machete looses in the course of the story. His brother, now a priest, is tortured and killed by Booth and another assassin he hires, Osiris Amanpour. Machete comes after Booth but Osiris weirdly escapes his wrath, disappearing from the film abruptly after that point. (We know the real reason this happens: Rodriguez thought Tom Savini was having so much fun in the part, that he decided to keep Osiris around for the sequel. But, within the film, it definitely seems like a major scene or two was hastily cut.)

Then again, maybe I'm overthinking it. Rodriguez orchestrates this convoluted plot mostly so he can create a series of ridiculous action scenes, that escalate in gore and insanity. A lot of this stuff is really fun. The movie starts with a triple decapitation and goes from there. Though his titular weapon is his favorite, Trejo uses items as diverse as weed whackers, hedge clippers, broken glass, and a meat thermometer to off his opponents. (The last of which pays off in an especially amusing way.) Probably my favorite moment involves Machete slicing open a goon, yanking out his intestines, and swinging out of a building with it. That is, admittedly, the kind of thing I've always wanted to see in an action movie.

Like many of Rodriguez' action flicks, “Machete” is basically a love action cartoon. It gets more ridiculous as it goes on. After aligning himself with Luz' Network, Machete and his team embark on all-out war with the bad guys. At that point, Rodriguez begins to push things perhaps too far. Trejo wields a giant sized machete, Michelle Rodriguez firing a gun of Rob Liefeld-ian proportions. Low riders trick out with crazy hydraulics shoot rockets out of their motors and crush people after leaping into the air. It doesn't help matters that “Machete” is full of CGI blood, making the action scenes feel even more unrealistic and exaggerated.

After two decades of making fast-paced action movies, you can sometimes feel like Robert Rodriguez is starting to loose interest a little. Some of the big action scenes mentioned above are shot in a very straight-forward, not-so-flashy way. The final sword fight between Machete and Torrez is shockingly direct. The most interestingly directed moments tend to be a little more small-scale. Cheech Marin's shoot-out with a group of bad guys recalls some of that John Woo-esque operatic quality, what with people shooting and ducking around a church. A really cool scene has Jessica Alba fighting a luchador mask wearing assassin in her home, weaponizing her shoes. Some flashy split-screen shots are employed here and they are fun. Granted, it's entirely possible the less impressive action could be the work of Maniquis or vice versa. It's hard to say.

You can split “Machete's” large supporting cast – primarily made up of notable Latino talent and established cult icons – into its heroes and villains. Rodriguez re-teams with Jessica Alba after “Sin City.” Alba seems more comfortable in this part and, while she's still not totally convincing as a tough action heroine, her interactions with Trejo are cute. Michelle Rodriguez, meanwhile, is very at ease with being a bad ass. She brings conviction to the part of Luz, someone who genuinely wants to help people, before getting transformed into a cartoonish action star. Cheech Marin has fun as a less-than-virtuous priest. For the first time in their many collaborations, Rodriguez has Cheech reference his pot-smoking comedy days, in a gag that's a little too on the nose. He also brings “Spy Kids'” Daryl Sabara back for a brief part, as an exaggerated cholo mechanic.

There's some serious wattage among “Machete's” bad guys. Some might think Hollywood royalty like Robert DeNiro is above an exploitation throwback like this. Yet compared to many of DeNiro's humiliating latter day credits, the scumbag vigor he brings to Senator McLaughlin is pretty good. Don Johnson, amusingly, gets an “introducing” credit as the leader of the vigilantes, exuding a greasiness as the film's hateful character. Jeff Fahey wrings both comedy and a certain coolness out of Booth. Lindsay Lohan, in a clear case of stunt casting, plays his philandering daughter. The character contributes little to the film and Lohan's acting is broad and unconvincing.

Then there's Steven Seagal as Torrez. This was Seagal's first theatrically released film in eight years, a brief respite from his perpetual status as a regular in direct-to-video cheapies. The bloated and increasingly leathery Seagal is a weird choice for an intimidating Mexican drug lord. Aside from his differing race, Seagal naturally brings an affection for samurai swords and martial arts to the character. Presumably, he was cast more for the cool factor, of getting another action icon (no matter how dubious) into the film. Seagal, for what its worth, at least brings a sleazy slither to the part, Torrez being very self-assured in his power. The performer's notorious egotism is on-display. It's rumored that Seagal has it in his contract that his characters can never be killed by someone and, if they must die, Seagal has to do it himself. “Machete” gets around this by having the hero fatally wound Torrez and letting the villain finish himself off. Which is hilarious if you know the back story but rather anticlimactic if you don't.

Despite some serious flaws, “Machete” is an entertaining film. It also reached a largely untapped audience. I worked at a video store in 2010 and can recall several Hispanic people asking when the movie would be coming out on DVD. That same audience would turn out at the theaters, pushing “Machete” to gross four times its modest 10 million dollar budget. Danny Trejo was already a cult favorite before but “Machete’s” success would cause Rodriguez’ vision to come true. Aside from a sequel to “Machete,” Trejo has gone on to star in dozens of low budget action/thriller films. They have fittingly Bronson-esque titles like “Vengeance,” “The Contractor,” or “Bullet.” (A few, like “Bad Ass” and “Dead in Tombstone,” got sequels of their own.) It’s not quite a full-blown “Mexploitation” movement but it’s pretty neat nevertheless. [Grade: B]

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