Now I’m gonna take a wide detour with my review of Robert Rodriguez’s MACHETE. You can’t click a movie site on the Internet right now without finding the latest fan boy’s cream-filled opinion or how mainstream media is attempting to make sense of this box office draw. That’s not what interests me so much. After ample time to allow the movie to digest, there’s several keys issues that I feel need to be addressed and discussed regarding this film. There’s spoilers abound, so don’t even tread lightly. Watch the film, come back, and then let’s have this discourse. For those lucky enough to be initiated, here’s my rant.
First off, I am one of those cream-filled fan boys, but despite my tastes and affections, I feel compelled to analyze and decipher the merits of Hollywood’s latest offerings to the best of my collective abilities. Whether you agree with me my opinions is vastly different than the issues that surround and help form them. The release of Machete is a shot across the bow to contemporary cinema, an echo heralded by THE EXPENDABLES only weeks before. American audiences want fun, imagination, and a thoughtful level of storytelling. I’m not entirely sure that this film delivers in each category, but it helps to sell a lot of popcorn. We live in an age where we can bring dinosaurs to life on screen, and travel light-years through the galaxy by going to the cineplex. Seeing GRINDHOUSE in the theaters was an experience that I would remember far more than TITANIC or any other summer blockbuster. The fact that Grindhouse opened on Easter weekend and still pulled in a #3 spot at the box office shows there’s fans out there, like me, that will vote with their dollar. And yet, as such obese consumers of mass media, we’ve grown too lazy to look for the message, the point of it all. We’ve become too distracted by the packaging to judge the content.
Grindhouse style movies and exploitation films have a certain aesthetic and subject matter that draws a very diverse, yet specific crowd of fans, usually to Midnight Screenings. We enjoy blood, violence, gratuitous nudity, monsters, car chases, explosions, robots, aliens, lasers, and dismemberment. These stories from the 60s to the annals of the VHS boom delivered countless favorites across the sub-genres. And what was once old and forgotten has given way to remakes and re-imagings of cult classics galore. Some would call it a gimmick, but the clamor to revitalize our youth is often fueled through our entertainment first. The case in point is Machete.
Controversy began to brew with the release of a trailer where Danny Trejos specifically targeted Arizona amidst the political upheaval regarding their immigration policies. Politics aside, this marketing capitalized on the sensationalism that is largely attributed to the release of exploitation films. There was no gore or nudity on one sheet posters like many films advertised in the 70s, but instead it relied on a fevered word of mouth and the Internet to deliver what we thought would be the incarnation of the first faux trailer of the double feature Grindhouse. We expected violence, bloodshed, and nudity all delivered with a tongue planted firmly in cheek. This was the promise to many that were ushered out of the the back rooms of their local Mom & Pop video stores because they weren’t old enough. Now audiences could relive a similar experience in full unadulterated, uninterrupted technicolor the way Tarantino and Rodriguez intended. One of the largest successes of Grindhouse as a film were the faux trailers depicted at the start and intermission. DON’T crystallized the British haunted house craze, while THANKSGIVING nodded to the over-the-top gore that marked the rise of the Slasher genre. Even WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE SS delivered a largely taboo sub-genre of exploitation to middle America that embraced it with open arms. Each one encapsulated the love of that particular style of film making and shared that love through a visceral experience that made fans ravenous for more. And yet, Machete stood out as the go-to film that audiences hoped would be realized into an actual feature.
Here an Mexican ex-Federale seeks his revenge on an assassination set-up that left him double-crossed. I myself was excited for the scenes of intestinal rope swinging and motorcycles mounted with Gatling guns. The film delivers in the gore and bloodshed, with a harrowing stand out being the crucifixion of Machete’s cleric brother played by Cheech Marin. Religious groups have already taken offense to that scene and honestly I can’t blame them. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it either. The violence depicted throughout was cartoonish and garish, and yet I was left wanting more. When raising the bar with each over-the-top delivery of action, it somewhat disappoints when we are no longer offended. It’s as if the dirty jokes have lost their punchlines. But here the formula was simple enough; a down and out hero is called back into action to save the day from the very ones that wronged him. And for many of us fan boys that fueled early ticket sales, we hoped that formula included a direct correlation between the body count and breasts exposed.
Don Johnson looks a lot less like Crockett from MIAMI VICE and a tad more like Gil Grissom from CSI as he grits and grimaces at the camera. He’s adept as the uber-militia leader Lt. Stillman patrolling the borders, yet I couldn’t help but feel this dog wasn’t allowed off his chain. His deeply embedded family history and dedication to the U. S. of A. is what fosters his attitude and behavior to immigrants, a rhetoric that taken out of context with his bloodshed, could easily serve as bullet points for some talking head political pundit. This dialogue and belief system is meant to serve as a cracked mirror held up to the many constituents in this country that own too many firearms and have too much free time on their hands. Stillman’s betrayal at the hands of American politics and Senator McLaughlin seems glossed over and never fully realized as the leader of such hard lined militants. Instead Stillman’s efforts are to fight Machete and his posse, who all together hope for the same end to the Senator. Stillman’s delayed execution of De Niro’s character for treason is actually justified, and here is where you actually begin agreeing with a man that only 90 minutes earlier shot a pregnant woman in the stomach.
Steven Seagal keeps his hair perfectly coiffed as Torrez, a puppet master engineering and financing an operation to control America’s southern border. Swinging a katana blade and spewing Spanish vulgarities every time the camera focuses on him, Seagal revels in the spotlight which one would think would’ve been brighter with a role in THE EXPENDABLES. Here he stereotypically embodies every drug-lord kingpin that films from the 80s could birth. I was half expecting to see Seagal with a pet tiger, but I guess an Asian with an Uzi will suffice. Torrez’s exposition as evil incarnate is muddled in the bloody climax of the film when it’s revealed he too was once a Federale like Machete, with Torrez choosing power over honor. When the coup de grace is delivered it’s not in the gut splattering spectacle we have been anticipating the entire film. It’s not Machete getting the best of an adversary that decapitated his wife. Instead we are treated to a film student’s version of a Harri Kari. This act robs the audience of the final showdown, the beat of comeuppance that makes the price of admission worthwhile. The special effects are rushed and sloppy at best and pale in comparison to the carnage that has set a fever pitch to those that seek justice enacted on the harbinger of so much pain and suffering. Maybe Seagal should have downed some of his own energy drinks to be able to keep a pace with Trejo in what I was hoping to be a blade swinging finale that would last longer than a high school freshman’s first time in the sack. It’s sad to see such a one dimensional representation of a Cartel Boss when there’s so much from real life to draw from, and not just decapitations.
Jeff Fahey as Booth, holds his own against the racist man-child depicted by De Niro as the cleaner of all McLaughlin’s messes. It was refreshing to see De Niro actually star in the film and not just coast by as a cameo. Booth’s daughter played by Lindsay Lohan honestly has no business in the picture outside of having a body double fill her role in the iconic pool scene with her mother and Machete. Jessica Alba’s failed police work hinges on a man to rescue her and save the day. At first I thought Alba was Machete’s daughter, a nice twist to play her as fully grown, but that didn’t come to pass. Luz, portrayed by Michelle Rodriguez, serves as the only strong female presence and even then one peek at her “network” in the garage illustrates how far away she is from the myth of She the Revolutionary.
The largest problems I had with Machete was its pacing. These eloquent scenes of action and carnage ground to a halt so Machete can eat rice & beans to prove he trusts Agent Sartana? Trimming this feature to 90 minutes would have delivered the gut punch everyone was expecting. Instead it played like watching your favorite childhood wrestler climb into the ring today. Sure, you’ll applaud and cheer, but the intensity was somehow lost and the show has suffered. I had a good time laughing loudly and throwing popcorn, but I have to say I would’ve enjoyed this more at home then the theater. Gone are the scratches, pops, and cigarette burns that made PLANET TERROR such a stand out as celluloid gold, only to be replaced with a sleek and clean memory of a film that should be fuzzy and drenched in a lot more blood. I even enjoyed the Babysitter Twins again, but it felt too little to rekindle the flames of Rodriguez’s zombie opus.
Many take issue that Whites are portrayed in such a negative connotation, but outside of films about slavery or Nazis I can’t think of another instance that has warranted such a depiction. That is to say, it’s about time. The trouble with Machete is that between Fahey, Seagal, and De Niro, we are subjected to three barracudas when the film really needs a Great White Shark. Robert Rodriguez does a stellar job of showcasing that the damning attitudes towards immigration and illegal aliens are all around us, but for purposes of such a revenge story it helps to embody one visage for our interpretations of evil. For all the racist and derogatory terms hurled at the Mexicans, Rodriguez actively and deftly depicts them as the exact opposite. Here we witness the side of Mexican culture that has largely been ignored by mainstream media. This was also the first time I’ve witnessed the scenario of too many henchmen, and not enough crime boss. The troubling thing is that most of these genre films are so formulaic and yet somewhere the recipe was lost. Perhaps in trying to add in all the cool things we would expect as an audience, the studio forgot to include the things we take for granted. To make such a film in today’s society, interconnected via modems and God knows what else, you can’t deliver something with large plot holes like the originals you say you’re paying homage to and expect not to be held accountable. I will tip the hat to originality though over a remake any day. Just don’t piss in my ear and tell me it’s raining.
While Machete is supposed to be our anti-hero, at times it’s that much harder to root for him. You’re confused by who exactly the love interest is supposed to be; Sartana or Luz? What is he truly fighting for? And after Booth lays dying, Machete walks away after Booth crucified his brother. We learn that commandos don’t text message, but also can’t say no when trouble comes knocking. Why didn’t Machete turn down Booth’s offer at the start? There’s really no way his organization could hurt Machete worse than Torrez did. Redemption through bloodshed is what we signed up for and instead we’re treated to a water downed episode of LAW & ORDER as Machete tries to crack the case and a few skulls in between. I have to be honest in saying I was disappointed that there wasn’t another faux trailer to this film. The introduction of this story as a trilogy with MACHETE KILLS and MACHETE KILLS AGAIN just didn’t whet the appetite enough. Disagree all you want but as Machete and Sartana ride off into the night, you know the sequel will be all about how Torrez DIDN’T kill Machete’s daughter. Cue guitar solo.
What was promised:
What was delivered:
Alex Jones of Info Wars has fanned a bit of controversy with Machete stating fears that the film is a “call to arms” in its depictions of a race war between Mexicans and Whites. This Glenn Beck styled “journalist” has had fears that this film will serve as the flash-point in the delicate balance of border control. Jones fears that what is depicted as “art” can be used as a rallying cry for actual violence against government officials and law enforcement. Rodriguez uses the topical subject matter of immigration to present a Mexican folk hero, a legend through layers of satire and political jabs at government and race relations. To think that Machete is the next BIRTH OF A NATION is, in my opinion, ludicrous, but many seem to hold his fears as their own, so lets examine them.
Now regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Jones the larger issue to examine is one of the scariest he raises; that in essence the film was funded by the American taxpayer and any issues can be solved through the almighty dollar. Allow me to elaborate. Certain states offer tax incentives to film crews to shoot and produce their films within their borders. At different government regulated percentages, some states compete by offering a higher percentage rate with tax incentives than other states. This is why most films are shot in California and New York. These incentives institute that a production company must hire a certain amount of crew and actors from the local area. It can save hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars based on the size of the production and the percentage offered. Many people fail to realize the amount of additional income that is generated by actors and crew paying for room & board, the food they eat, gas and transportation, the supplies they purchase, and the elevated attention to tourism this brings to whatever metropolis will serve as the film’s setting. The revenue generated in Connecticut from such productions as INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, Wes Craven’s MY SOUL TO TAKE and others were in the tens of millions. Think of the countless cities and townships that could be lifted up from hard times by utilizing such tax practices. Is it a sustainable future that can dramatically shift the sway of crime and poverty? Probably not at first, but it’s a much more viable option than legalizing casinos or other efforts to draw the tourist dollar where commercial industry has failed and rusted away.
That great idea is already faltering and the process of artistic elimination is currently underway. Jones lobbies that citizens should rally around their state elected officials and clamor that they, as a community, won’t allocate funds for the arts if those funds finance films of objectionable/questionable content. Consider it fiscally based censorship. Take Michigan for example. Filmmaker Andrew van den Houten had received a tax credit for his film OFFSPRING based on Jack Ketchum’s novel. When Andrew began the pre-production process for his next project, a sequel called THE WOMAN, officials objected to the content. Officially it was said the project got wrapped up in red tape and that additional monies couldn’t be accrued for the sequel. However which way you want to believe this scenario played out, the message to take away is that it’s becoming that much harder for independent filmmakers to compete on an even playing field and deliver a product that hasn’t been pasteurized for your protection.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of hands out with Hollywood. DVD sales have sagged due to piracy, Actor’s Unions are finally making their squeeze felt, and studios are unsure of what to invest in with the lingering effects of the economy. The fact that a film like MACHETE was even made is probably due to the fact that the studios want Rodriguez to deliver another SPY KIDS three times over. The independent filmmaker that we love to champion as the underdog can barely make his way to the arena to fight with their story if it’s undercut before the battle. In essence, by not supporting this freedom of expression it solidifies a homogenization of American cinema. Now think of the sheer volume of movies and entertainment that America exports to the rest of the world. It’s one of the last great products that can be proudly stamped with MADE IN AMERICA and yet those that say they seek to protect the common good, would destroy that under the guise of advocacy. If you’re offended by the content, don’t support it. There’s ratings by the MPAA for a reason, and I’m not saying there’s not issues with that institution, but its purpose is a system of checks and balances that’s already in place. A message shouldn’t be silenced because of its graphic content or subject matter, simply because one doesn’t agree with it. Sometimes those are the things we need to witness to protect what’s most important to us all.
Tags: Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Free Speech, Jack Ketchum, Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan, Machete, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Seagal, Tax Incentives, Trouble Maker Studios