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Jason Wallis ‘Machete’ lacks energy of great exploitation cinema

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Saturday, September 11, 2010 12:00 am

We’re back with a look at Robert Rodriguez’s hotly anticipated exploitation tribute “Machete.“ Next week, we will (schedule permitting) take a break from the reviews with a more thorough preview of what you can expect from Battle Royale, the News-Sentinel’s new movie blog that will expand the scope of our film discussions with some fresh perspectives from new writers and, hopefully, more reader interaction.

After that we’re back in the fray with a review of Ben Affleck’s sophomore directorial effort “The Town” — my most anticipated movie of the whole year, and a fitting kickoff to the Oscar-bait-heavy fall movie season.

I’ve got a theory about Robert Rodriguez: His best films were ghost-directed by Quentin Tarantino. Think about it. When he’s got Tarantino on board for a project as collaborator or writer or “special guest director,” he gives us gold like “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn,” “Sin City” and “Planet Terror.” Yet when he’s left to his own devices (or, in the case of “Machete,” teamed with a newcomer like Ethan Maniquis, the esteemed film editor of “Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil”), he churns out his typical subpar product.

Tarantino — credited as a producer on “Machete” — should have been on-set more, standing behind Rodriguez’s back and checking his work, because this follow-up to their collaborative effort “Grindhouse” feels like a huge letdown. Despite a rousing first half, it offers little of the sheer lunatic energy found in both original “Grindhouse” features. See, in both “Planet Terror” and (especially) “Death Proof,” the filmmakers appeared to understand, inside and out, the conventions and mechanics of genre interplay, and they used that understanding to deliver two of the most elaborate and thrilling examples of B-movie homage that I’ve ever seen.

In “Machete,” Rodriguez seems to have lost his way — going through the motions of exploitation filmmaking, but rarely imparting a real sense of “I can’t believe I just saw that” shock and awe. All the elements are there: outrageous violence, plenty of sex and nudity, and the general sense of self-satisfied sleaziness that defines the entire genre. But it all feels so half-hearted, as though Rodriguez felt compelled to film “Machete” in its entirety (a faux trailer was included in the original “Grindhouse” release, along with several others) but never really wanted to. Unfortunately, that sense of apathy shines through. But, with any luck, at least its box office results will bode well for future “Grindhouse” releases like Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” and Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the S.S.”

Surprisingly, the plot is one of my favorite things about the film: Danny Trejo (the grizzled beast of a man you’ve no doubt seen in such movies as “Con Air” and “Predators,” usually playing some manner of large, scary criminal) stars as Machete, a Mexican federal agent who, as the film opens, is betrayed by his superiors in service of a powerful drug lord (Steven Seagal). Left for dead, with his family slaughtered, Machete now lives a relatively quiet life in the States as a struggling day laborer — that is, until a mysterious man offers him $150,000 to assassinate an anti-immigration state senator (Robert De Niro). Of course, the whole thing is revealed to be a ruse to gain votes, and after the botched assassination attempt Machete’s employers try to kill him to eliminate loose ends. But as they soon discover, they just screwed with the wrong Mexican.

The story is essentially an excuse to show Machete going after the men who set him up, but things branch out to include an intriguing conspiracy plot between Seagal’s drug lord, De Niro’s state senator and a murderous border guard played by Don Johnson. It feels like everything is headed toward one inevitable, awesomely violent action showdown that promises to tie all this together, but somehow, in the final 30 minutes, Rodriguez lets things fall apart. With the addition of unnecessary subplots involving Cheech Marin as Machete’s padre/brother and Lindsay Lohan as a drugged-out harlot (resisting… urge… to make joke…), things just sort of spiral out of control, with everything culminating in a whimper — far from the bang we were promised.

Incidentally, one of the most entertaining things about “Machete” has nothing to do with the movie itself, but rather people’s reaction to it. Take, for instance, the culture war types who are livid — livid, I tell you! — that a mainstream movie would dare promote genocide against the white race. Let’s neglect, for the moment, the long and rich history of anti-white exploitation cinema, dating back to the early ’70s with works like “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song.” In the name of ignorance and insanity, let us pretend that this is some kind of new and serious threat, and damn it, let’s get righteously indignant!

Or maybe we should all just calm down. “Machete” is a movie that features Danny Trejo cutting a man’s stomach open, then using his intestines as a makeshift rope as he jumps out of a five-story window. Perhaps, just perhaps, this kind of thing should be taken in the spirit in which it is offered.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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