The Best Movie Critic + review

Machete

Robert Rodriguez must be some kind of seer. The fake Machete trailer first appeared in front of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror as part of the comprehensive Grindhouse experience. Real grindhouse movies feel 'so 70s' to us because they did such a great job incorporating elements of the time matter-of-factly in the plot. Foxy Brown’s message about the drug trade and the ghettoization of urban youth, for example, or the central role of newly available handheld video technology in Cannibal Holocaust. In Planet Terror, Rodriguez updated and contemporized this conceit. At the movie’s climax, it is revealed that the zombie outbreak is caused by the accidental release of experimental chemical weapons from Iraq. But I think Machete marks the first time a grindhouse movie actually predicted new developments in a controversial and timely topic before they even happened. Early in Machete, the leader of an evil border patrol militia (Don Johnson) shoots a pregnant Mexican attempting to cross into the U.S. If she gives birth on U.S. soil, he points out, that child will be a citizen. There is no way Rodriguez could have known about the “Anchor Baby” fever that has swept the Far Right in the months since he wrote and shot this movie. It’s uncanny.

The mere existence of Machete is amazing. Back when we first saw the mock trailer in 2007, us fanboys were already screaming for a full length Machete movie, but mostly because it just looked totally badass. It is unbelievable that the concept of Machete has become sadly relevant in the 3 years since the trailer was released. Rather than functioning as just action fantasy, Machete actually seems to provide a venue for expressing immigrant angst that must be at a boiling point now, in much the same way that Blaxploitation provided a venue for expressing Afro-American anger and frustration in the 70s. Machete isn’t super deep, and the pro-immigration argument is sort of confusing and convoluted, but the same can be said for a lot of great Blaxploitation movies.

The contemporizing doesn’t stop at the immigration issue, either. This movie is chocked full of cell phones, ludicrous campaign ads, Skyping, and a fun reoccurring joke about how “Machete doesn’t text.” As any grindhouse movie worth its salt must, Machete skillfully walks the line between timely and timeless.

Food plays a huge part in this movie, a nice touch on Rodriguez’s part. Little things like Jessica Alba’s Agent Sartana cooking for Machete when he’s injured not only flesh out the characters but also the culture. This is another element of ‘Mexploitation’ that could easily have been overlooked, but wasn’t. Taco and enchilada jokes fly at you from all sides. There’s even a not so subtle scene where evil whitey Booth (Jeff Fahey) has a taco dinner with his family. He goes on an on about the Mexican problem, then asks his daughter to pass the salsa.

Machete's stunt casting is uniformly well executed, but there are just too many characters with too little to do. Machete is an ensemble piece and it doesn't need to be. Though I like elements of both Jessica Alba’s immigration cop with a budding sense of social justice and Michelle Rodriguez’s illegal immigrant underground railroad guru-come-eyepatched revolution leader, one or the other could have been cut. As much as she was a hoot to watch, what the hell was Lindsey Lohan doing in this movie? Same goes for the bad guys. Stephen Segal, Jeff Fahey, Robert De Niro, Don Johnson, Tom Savini, and a couple others I can't name off the top of my head are all good or great, but if your brain just started hurting due to how many names I just listed off, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how confusing it is to have so many bad guys running around on screen. Rodriguez seems to have forgotten that what people found so compelling about the Machete trailer in the first place was the simple brilliance of the ‘illegal immigrant revenge’ concept. He’s created a dense and comprehensive world to explore here, but I don’t think that adds very much to Machete's primal appeal.

Fleshing out a feature length movie from a ‘badass’ trailer must be quite a challenge, so kudos to Rodriguez for figuring out a way to include every image from the five year old fake trailer in the movie. There were times, however, when it felt like Rodriguez was sort of just ‘checking off shots’ rather than making the incorporation of those shots interesting or necessary. I would have been okay with Rodriguez leaving out a couple shots from the trailer if it meant a more coherent movie. Furthermore, most of the ‘holy shit’ moments in the movie are from the trailer, and it doesn’t do Rodriguez any favors that we’ve been familiar with those beats for over half a decade. It would have been an interesting challenge for Rodriguez to come up with, say, three moments that top even the motorcycle machine gun, and pepper them throughout the movie. As it stands, you’ve seen most of the craziest stuff here in the trailer. I don’t know if this will matter much for people seeing the movie fresh, but it’ll hit Grindhouse fans hard.

That said, Machete is a lot of fun. If the fake trailer had never existed, I think the movie’s sheer badass mondo-ness would completely overwhelm any complaints I have about the plot structure. Moments like the crucifixion or ‘death by hydraulics’ will go down as some of Robert Rodriguez’s best. I won’t spend too much time worrying about what Machete could have been, because I’m thankful for what it is. It’s a miracle this movie even exists.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: Machete wipes the floor with The Expendables. Fuck that movie. Watch this one instead.

-Ben

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Machete + review