Thursday, February 24, 2011

Machete (2010)

Way back in September, I proclaimed ‘Machete’ to be a 'must see’ movie – or at least one that I was going to make it a point to see. I didn’t make it a point to see it in theaters, but I did catch it belatedly on DVD, a mere five months later.

Basically, the movie was all I could have hoped for. My expectations were for a surfeit of red corn syrup, large blades, and rock and roll - and 'Machete' did not disappoint.

 It’s interesting, to me, to try and get a handle on what the movie is, especially when considered from director Robert Rodriguez’s perspective. On the one hand, we have a super violent B-movie. It’s clearly an homage to B-movies in general, and yet…Is there a hint of satire in there? I’ll propose that the movie takes itself seriously as a lovingly done, yet lighthearted and overly-exaggerated homage – but with all the excesses inserted into the script as purely conscious decisions.

Take the scene where the eponymous character Machete Cortez, locked in the back of  police car, stabs the driver through the seat with his machete and twists it clockwise and counterclockwise, thereby compelling the unfortunate (yet wholly deserving) driver to turn the steering wheel in complimentary directions. I have a feeling that certain movies, ones similar in type to ‘Piranha 3D,’ would imply that the scene is plausible, or insert it unaware of the fact that the audience will not be astounded by the excess of blood or by the skills of Machete, but rather will chuckle at the scene’s audacity. Rodriguez, however, is an astute director, well versed in the B-movie canon and in all types of ridiculous plot devices. He inserts a scene like this (and there are many, many scenes like this one in Machete) to have fun. This is what makes 'Machete' not 'just another B-movie' and renders it as something else, a 'meta-B-movie,' maybe. It's no cinematic tour de force, for sure, but it's also not junk, by any assessment.

Fun is the key descriptor when talking about 'Machete.' Rodriguez plays with the B-movie medium; it is a blank canvas that he knows how to skillfully transform into a chaotic jollification. Clichés and catch phrases are employed at just the right moments, always with enough tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, so that the phrases don’t come off as an actor trying to be the next Clint Eastwood (‘Do you feel lucky punk?’) and failing miserably. Rather, we can tell that the actor is deliberately pulling out the stops; they don’t want to be remembered for the phrase, but they do want to get the audience stirred. To put it poorly – catch phrases and clichés are employed in a manner so unserious that they work, especially insofar as they never present the audience with an opportunity to declare their utterance ridiculous hamminess. This is how Rodriguez intends it, of course. To go into this type of movie without being able to simultaneously respect the genre and laugh at yourself results in bloated crap, a movie that tries to be taken seriously, but is built on a premise so absurd that it never can be.

The movie is a diversion from more serious films; it’s kind of like ordering Chinese food instead of cooking up the four-course nouvelle cuisine feast you've been planning. Rodriguez assembled a great cast, too, an awesome mix of A-list actors as well as actors from Rodriguez’s past films (not any less superb, of course): De Niro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Steven Seagall (as the evil Mexican drug trafficker! Awesome! And yes, he does wield a samurai sword), Lindsay Lohan, Cheech, Jeff Fahey ('Grindhouse: Planet Terror'), Shea Whigham (Sheriff Eli on 'Boardwalk Empire'), Tom Savini (wielder of the ‘crotch gun’ in 'From Dusk Til Dawn'), Daryl Sabara ('Spy Kids'), and the babysitting psychopathic twins from ‘Grindhouse: Planet Terror.’ It also ‘introduces’ a little known actor, Don Johnson.

There is one things that ‘Machete' is not – a hack job. It deftly slices open the B movie genre, exposing the meaty insides, and reminds us just why we love watching gory, unrealistic action movies. They're like candy - they contain not one bit of nutrition, but damn do they taste good.

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