MOVIE – “Machete” (2010)
DIRECTORS – Ethan Maniquis & Robert Rodriguez
WRITERS – Robert & Alvaro Rodriguez
SIX DEGREES OF CAST & CREW
- The sixth time actor Danny Trejo and director Robert Rodriguez have worked together
- The first time actors Cheech Marin and Don Johnson have worked together since completing “Nash Bridges” in 2001
- One of few on-screen roles for actor Jason Douglas, who’s previously known for some twenty-odd years of Anime english-dubbing voicework
- Directorial debut for Ethan Maniquis, otherwise known for editing and visual effect work for various Robert Rodriguez films of past
The Trejo’s come home to roost, y’all.
Two interesting movies came out this past year. One was “The Expendables”, featuring a who’s-who cast of classic action stars. I haven’t seen the film, but the vibe I get from the production in general is one of it being a sort of Last Hurrah for these aging badasses, one last time to flex their triggerfingers and shine some one-liners.
The other is “Machete”, and gives off a similar “one for the road” air in its ensemble cast, though a group far less household-nameful. No, the tough guys that grace this screen are far more recognized and appreciated by a audiences that appreciate more than just a trailer-ful of action sequences and taglines. They’re attentive to details that otherwise flash by a weekend-movie-goer’s eyes. They see skillful stuntwork, choice cinematography. Case in point, they see the actors behind the actors.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are these types of movie lovers, the kind of people that go out of their way to watch any kind of movie, made at any budget, in any country, because they know there’s quality to be found in the least likely places. And once they successfully achieved filmmaking success in their own rights, they were like kids in candy stores. Only they weren’t just shopping for themselves; they were more like small business owners, suddenly finding access to wholesale distributors so they could stock up their own candy stores, to sell quality product to audiences that they understand well, having been amongst said audiences. Hence their 21st century efforts that haven’t strived for increasingly bigger budgets and bigger stars. Why opt for flavor-of-the-week actors when you can dig through the crates of thespiatic history for perfectly quality performance?Tarantino got that ball rolling back in 1997 with Robert Forster “Jackie Brown”, David Carridine in “Kill Bill”, and Mickey Rourke in 2002′s “Sin City”.
The big wakeup call for the general cinematic public was 2007′s “Grindhouse” doublebill, Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Tarantino’s “Death Proof”, interspliced with fake movie trailers. The whole ordeal was a gigantic love-letter from the directors to the kinds of cinema they adored and always wanted to make, and they finally were able to go balls-out and make those kinds of movies, albeit in their own tongue-in-digital-cheek ways. You watch those films and see actors like Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Kurt Russell, Udo Kier, Bill Moseley, Sybil Danning, in character actor type roles that you’ve seen them in before, maybe more than once. But they’re cast here again because Tarantino and Rodriguez knew them from those roles too, and want to thank them for it, maybe show them a little more appreciation, maybe a new, younger audience, eager to mine the dollar-bin VHS racks before they’re gone completely.
Hence my reason for including a review of a brand new movie here on Cinema NARCs, where we otherwise take pride in solely reviewing VHS copies of said diamonds-in-the-dollar-bin. Because 2010′s “Machete” is another one of those love letters that moviegoers get to look over Rodriguez’s shoulder and read.
The epitome of my point to all this is Danny Trejo, the film’s star and character namesake. He’s scarred, tattooed, clomping around with a knife and a grimace and a purpose, and you’ve seen him do that dozens of times in dozens of very similar roles. With a resume closing in on over two hundred films, I think I can guarantee you’ve seen Danny Trejo before. If you’re a pre-teen kid, you’ve seen him in “Spy Kids”. If you’re a comedy lover, you’ve seen him in “Bubble Boy”. If you’re a housewife swooning over Harrison Ford in “Six Days Seven Nights”, you saw him in that too. And if you’re a fan of gritty action, you haven’t just seen him. After “Desperado”, “Heat”, “Con Air”, “From Dusk Til Dawn”… you know him by name.
Now you get to know him up close and personal. He’s had a few straight-to-video starring roles in the past, but this is by far his biggest shot. And when you’ve got Robert Deniro taking a backseat role, you know that Robert Rodriguez and crew mean business. Big, bloody, razorsharp, exploding business.
Now admittedly, one word to describe this movie might be… “silly”. I don’t mean goofy, but in terms of tongue-in-cheek. “Machete” never takes itself too serious, and at times dips into satire. Like I said, “Machete” is one of many movies Rodriguez and Tarantino are proudly making in the name of their cinematic heritage. And while some of those movies from the 60′s and 70′s perhaps took themselves too seriously for their own good, the end product was fun, if not funny. Rodriguez had fun watching those movies, and is clearly having fun making his own. So clearly he’s not striving for Oscar-worthy gold here. The plot is simple : Machete (Trejo) is a tough-as-nails former Federale, left for dead by corrupt higher-ups who don’t like good guys. Then some American politicians make the mistake of not realizing they’ve just hired him to assassinate a Senator (Deniro), meaning to make Machete the fall-guy in a twisted game of “Who’s the boss of who” corruption and Mexican-American immigration controversy, involving the Mexican drug lord to killed Machete’s wife and left him for dead to begin with.
Sound like a mess? Oh, it is. But while Rodriguez is writing a love-letter to similarly styled movies that are typically “not too good” at best, that does not mean he’s intentionally making a bad movie himself here. And take a look at some of the other members of this distantly-star-studded affair : Steven Seagal. Jeff Fahey. Don Johnson. Tom Savini. Clearly these are not names you associate with five-star class performances and films, Robert Deniro notwithstanding. But these people shine. Keep that in mind, before and after you see this movie.
Earlier I spoke of how “Machete” and “The Expendables” boast ensemble casts in seemingly one-last-ride blowouts. But while that may be more true of “The Expendables”, it’s with “Machete” that we take a different approach : getting the next generation of actors ready, giving them a shot. While it may not sound glamorous, Danny Trejo is for better or worse one of the Kings of Character Actors. Again, he’s had almost two hundred roles, ranging from bit parts to nameless, wordless thugs to comic relief buddies to tough-as-nails lead villains. And after nearly thirty years of this, it’s obvious that he’s not going to get many more spotlit roles such as this. But what people like Robert Rodriguez seem to realize is, there’s plenty other young, hungry actors waiting to step up to the plate. And you see that in “Machete”, loud and clear. There’s a wonderful crew of Bodyguards and Dishwashers and Thugs that are given the time and encouragement to do their best for the minute or so you see them here, and so many of them do a tremendous job. They leave you wanting to see more of them, instead of forgetting about them once the “real stars” shoot them in the face. And that’s what guys like Danny Trejo have made names for themselves by doing.
Trejo himself in the film is… well, Danny Trejo. At least in terms of his gritty action ouvre. The role was created for him, based on what he’s done best : intimidate you with a huge grimace and even bigger knife. It’s a kind of Irony For Badasses; if it were Bruce Willis making another Die Hard-esque wrong-guy-in-the-wrong-place movie, you’d roll your eyes. But there’s a very good chance that if you’re watching “Machete”, it’s because you know who Danny Trejo is, and you love him for what he’s done, and you WANT more of the same. That being said, you do get more than that. It is a starring role, so there should be (and is) far more depth and range to the Machete character. He has history, motivation, and heart. And dialogue. Admittedly the ratio of dialogue that Trejo speaks is far less than Fahey or Deniro or even Jessica Alba (who actually impressed me a bit, for once). But his overall screen time is ultimately in the majority, even if by-and-large he’s stomping around cutting peoples’ limbs off. But it speaks volumes of Trejo’s expertise. He’s not a classically trained actor (he was cast in his first bit-part role while just visiting a friend on the set of the movie). For better or for worse, Danny Trejo is most known for just looking tough as hell, and he’s had a couple decades to perfect it. If you’re able to hold attention in a leading role by just gritting your teeth for half the time, you’re doing something right.
What “Machete” truly succeeds in is doing good things with otherwise formula. It takes the grindhouse formats of unrealistic action and violence, over-the-top characters, and even love scenes, and it makes it all -work-. This film is as much fantasy as it is action – Trejo successfully bags Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsey Lohan, and Jessica Alba by the end, replete with funky “porno” soundtrack – but it’s never cheesy, it’s never eye-rolling. It works!
The lineage that “Machete” pays homage to may typically be that of gritty, grimy sound and picture quality, with lackluster photography and directing and acting, but “Machete” itself is far from sub-quality. The visuals are crisp, the photography framed and edited efficiently, the sound very choice. It’s as “legit” as any other hollywood production, but with roots firmly planted in its grindhouse garden past. So of course there’s going to be a few weeds. There’s a few character-based plot holes involving pointless or even missing individuals that are or at least could be relevant to the story. While Jeff Fahey is gruffly compelling as Deniro’s Senatorial Aide secretly and not-so-secretly puppetmastering things, his gravelly textured voice is simultaneously perfect at points and frustratingly indecipherable at others, particularly his death-rattle plot revelations toward the end.
And if “Machete” truly shows its sub-par filmmaking roots, its at the ending. We roll along with a very straightforward, action-oriented story for 90% of the movie, and then suddenly cruise into what feels like Che Guevara Revolutionary satire, if not outright parody (the mexican rolling an icecream cart into the final melee’ is a bit much). Overall there’s a conflicted sense of there being too many characters; it’s alot to take in, and yet everybody is paced in and out and dealt with expertly enough that you’re not necessarily left going, “Wait but what about…” Everyone and everything in “Machete” serves its purpose one way or another, and it’s safe to say that “Machete” as a film successfully fulfills its own purpose. And that’s in showing us how guys like Danny Trejo should always be given credit for serving their purposes in movie history, from Thug #2 bit part all the way up to “Machete” starring role.
Ride on, Danny. Odelay, Vato!
RATING – Four pocket-daggers out of five
STINGER – “Machete don’t text.”