Same Old Grind

You can call Robert Rodriguez many things but subtle isn’t one of them. With his new film, Machete, he stirs up a hornets’ nest of controversy with its timely political themes, satirical stereotypes and misogynist mayhem.

But all in good fun.

Danny Trejo as 'Machete'

Danny Trejo as cutlery.

One could say that this movie is an action-packed spoof, parodying the grindhouse genre of films that inspired it while simultaneously paying them homage. Somewhere along the way, however, Machete gets so wrapped up in its sermonizing that it feels like a grisly Sunday school lesson.

It starts promisingly enough, with Rodriguez in full grindhouse mode, right down to the fake scratches and jump cuts in the film. He sets the stage early for what the audience can expect when a fully nude woman, ostensible hostage of drug kingpin Torrez (Stephen Segal), subdues Machete, then nonchalantly retrieves a cell phone from her genitalia to call in reinforcements.

Yes. It’s that kind of movie.

Not to say that’s a bad thing. Indeed, it’s deliberately tongue-in-cheek. Phone-in-crotch. It sets a tone of absurdity that pervades throughout the film, and most of the action is just as ridiculous.

Why, then, does Machete feel so mundane? Possibly because, aside from that opening scene — and a hilariously gruesome gag in a Texas hospital — it lacks the kind of originality and inventiveness that made Rodriguez’s Desperado so much fun. The boilerplate action is bromidic and unexceptional.

In many ways, Machete plays like a remake of its superior predecessor, with genre favorite Danny Trejo switching roles from lethal assassin to liberating hero. Rather than simply going to war against murderous drug-runners who killed his woman (although there’s that, too), this time our hero takes on no less than U.S. policy itself, in the cartoonish incarnation of murderous minuteman Don Johnson and ultra-conservative “cockroach”-hating senator Robert DeNiro.

It’s a tactic that almost works, with Rodriguez attempting to lampoon stereotypes by amping them up. On the one hand he gives us the Mexican day laborers who scatter at the sight of “la migra” and gain access to villainous strongholds simply because they’re carrying gardening tools. On the other, we’re presented cowboy hat-wearing good ol’ boys who get their rocks off gunning down pregnant, border-crossing immigrants and courting voters with fear-mongering, hate-fueled political ads. Had Rodriguez a more nimble touch with social satire — as George A. Romero has demonstrated with his …of the Dead series — and the shrewdness to keep the politics on the periphery, he might have had something.

It’s that greater a shame, then, that with this much talent involved, he disposes of any attempt at obliquity and opts instead for heavy-handed political grandstanding. It plays nearly as a direct response to Arizona’s recently passed immigration law. Unfortunately, the result is that the movie nearly suffocates under the crushing weight of its remonstrations (“We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us!”)

Occasionally, Machete is permitted to breathe with its morbidly lighthearted humor and performances. Johnson, Segal and Jeff Fahey seem to most understand the type of film they’re making, with the latter deftly riding a fine line between the serious and the satirical. Segal spends much of the movie tossing out Spanish expletives and is given one of the film’s best moments when he faces off against Trejo in the third act. Relative newcomer Shea Whigham provides nice comic relief as the unflappable Sniper. And Cheech Marin demonstrates his usual gift for comedy as the foul-mouthed, shotgun-toting Padre. Trejo himself seems to be having a blast as the titular hero, tossing off one-liners (“Machete don’t text”) and bedding random women from scene to scene.

Unfortunately, the women don’t fare as well. Dependably bland Jessica Alba continues to coast on her baby face and temperate T & A as the immigration officer who comes to Machete’s aide. Lindsay Lohan, conspicuously absent from the movie’s marketing campaign in the weeks leading up to its release, seems to not understand the difference between being in an exploitation film and merely being exploited. Michelle Rodriguez is the only actress who walks away with dignity — and clothing — intact. With her disarming smile and relaxed confidence, she very nearly expropriates the entire picture.

All this and still Machete manages to be listless. All the right elements are there but Rodriguez, usually adept at putting them together, settles for what amounts to a feature-length PAC ad. It’s characteristic proselytizing from the director but it’s also uncharacteristically lazy.

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