My notes on the grindhouse spinoffs.
With the rise of the parodic fake trailer as a genre (I especially like the Walk the Line-style musical biopic of Weird Al Yankovic, Weird) it was inevitable someone would spin one out into a full-length movie. Machete began as a joke ‘Mexploitation’ coming attraction in Grindhouse, directed by Robert Rodriguez and stuck before his Planet Terror; here it is as a film co-directed by Rodriguez and his editor Ethan Maniquis (notice how RR doesn’t like to do anything on his own these days?). It’s perhaps inevitable that the finished product doesn’t match the come-on: indeed, it takes a different tack and sort-of tries to be a proper action movie rather than a South-of-the-Border take on Black Dynamite. Then again, most Rodriguez films don’t live up to their trailers – this is the kind of mixed bag that Planet Terror or the Spy Kids sequels were.
There’s enough ridiculous stuff to enjoy, but also plenty of business that’s hard to warm to: an overreliance on CGI gore, a disturbing inability to take women seriously even in cartoon terms, an odd imbalance of plot which rises from making a habitual bit-player into the star and surrounding him with big names, an assumption that just quoting the title of a spaghetti western (‘God forgives, I don’t’) lends gravitas to shopworn scenes, and a scrappy approach to action cinema that doesn’t match the earlier Rodriguez let alone the sainted John Woo or Sergio Leone (both of whom duly get pillaged from). The nicest thing about the film is that it treats Danny Trejo – who has played tattooed convicts, killers and hispanic minions in dozens of films – like the iconic star he ought to be, casting him as a disavowed ex-federale working as an illegal labourer in Texas and hired by a fixer (Jeff Fahey) to take a pot-shot at an anti-immigration senator (Robert DeNiro) as part of a conspiracy scam a lot like the one Mark Wahlburg fell for in Shooter mixed with the get-elected-on-a-sympathy-vote gambit from Bob Roberts. Trejo wields weapons and quips (‘Machete don’t text!’) with insouciance, and accepts the way hot stars half his age – Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan – throw themselves at him as if this happened in every movie he makes.
It’s a shame the film is too busy to give Trejo his due, but Machete is so crammed with villains working at cross-purposes – there’s a Mexican druglord (Steven Seagal), a racist border vigilante (Don Johnson), a suited sniper (Shea Whigham) and a hit man who advertises (Tom Savini) in the mix too – that the final scuffle has to let a bunch of supporting characters get their revenge on individual bad guys — a few get let off – Savini doesn’t pay for crucifying Machete’s priest brother (Cheech Marin) — before the surprisingly ineffective machete-vs-samurai-sword Trejo-Seagal face-off. The characters all look good on posters, in the freeze frame opening credits (which include a spoiler about Rodriguez’s fate) and when given their poses and a few catch-phrases (‘we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!’) but then disappointingly don’t do very much. It has a serious subtext, dealing with the dependence of Texas on the ‘illegals’ the state professes to despise, but it’s just an excuse for limp scenes referring to real issues even as the movie hurries on to the carnage. It still seems odd to me that so many filmmakers who love exploitation cinema and are steeped in the Roger Corman pictures of the 1970s also display so little understanding of why and how those drive-in pictures work.
Machete Kills (2013)
This sequel to the expansion of a joke trailer from Grindhouse opens with another joke trailer … for an as-yet-unmade threequel Machete Kills Again … in Space, which cops its look from those terrible Italian el cheapo Star Wars knock-offs and promises (not quite) Leonardo di Caprio as the Man in the Silver Mask. Actually, the whole point of this is one light-sabre gag as our hero (Danny Trejo) turns on a light-machete. Then the film backtracks and plays out its own story to a predestined end, which adds yet another layer of redundancy to a game that soured in the first film as the iconic Trejo, whose leathery charisma usually adorns direct-to-DVD efforts like Zombie Hunter, is pitched in with A-list names and comes out on top except that creator Robert Rodriguez seems not to trust his star creation and consistently lets other showoff turns upstage him.
Here, we get Mel Gibson as a Bond villain Star Wars fan, Michelle Rodriguez as an eyepatched Michelle Rodriguez, Amber Heard as an evil Texan beauty queen who gives Michelle Rodriguez someone to fight (including a ‘pussy punch’ knockout), ‘and introducing Carlos Estevez’ (Charley Sheen) as a gun-toting Prezz, Demian Bichir as a multiple personality character who fills in as chief baddie until Gibson shows up though he’s at once a cartelkiller, a serious revolutionary and a Mexican secret agent, plus his mirror image a chameleon killer played by Walt Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lady Gaga and Antonio Banderas. Oh, and Sofia Vergera, Jessica Alba, Alexa Vega and Vanessa Hudgens show up as hooker-assassins … Rodriguez seems to have picked up from Frank Miller the unfortunate habit of conceiving only female characters who are homicidal sex workers. The plot riffs on the earthbound business of the first film but is mostly s-f stuff, with an Escape From New Yorkish set-up as Machete has a set time to rescue a character whose beating heart is keyed to a nuclear doomsday device (even when removed from his chest) and a Moonraker ripoff development as the baddie wants to take his chosen people to live in a space station.
There’s some thin fun to be had, but time’s running out on this sort of thing.
Steve Bray “It still seems odd to me that so many filmmakers who love exploitation cinema and are steeped in the Roger Corman pictures of the 1970s also display so little understanding of why and how those drive-in pictures work.”
It’s true of other genres fans, and other eras too, but the 70’s films cast a long shadow because their political subtext crystalized in a way that the 60’s movies often couldn’t manage and the 80’s flicks were generally unaware of. The 70’s often had more of a sense of humour about their ideas too, even (or especially) when it was underplayed.
Rich Flannagan Flaws and all, it was still fun. I agree that it could have been a little more political, and it seems a bit pointless for technically competent directors to ape the ropey production values of many of the Exploitation films. Having said that, roll on Machete Kills!
Goodnight, Danny Trejo.