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In Grindhouse directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tackled the idea of making an homage to exploitation films from different angles. With Death Proof Quentin Tarantino set out to make an actual grindhouse movie, complete with all those films’ flaws and foibles; the endless lulls, the dull conversations, punctuated by occasionally interesting and sometimes innovative stunts and violence. Rodriguez on the other hand set out to make more of a grindhouse homage, an idealized exploitation film in which he portrayed them without all the warts. His Planet Terror wasn’t so much an exploitation movie as a re-imagining of what exploitation movies should have been. His take was a movie without all the boring in between parts, and instead composed entirely of all the really cool stuff they were likely to use in the trailers. With Machete Rodriguez continues his exploration of the grindhouse aesthetic, only this time his vision skews closer to that of Tarantino. Unlike Planet Terror, Machete is not so much an homage to exploitation movies as it is an exploitation movie itself. And that means when it’s at its most ridiculous it really works, and when it isn’t, it doesn’t.
It also means tackling complex social issues with blunt force trauma. In their heyday exploitation movies often exploited not only sex, nudity, and violence but also news events and political controversy. It’s a time honored grindhouse tradition and Rodriguez embraces it here by making a movie which takes a firm stand on illegal immigration without having any actual real, logical thought behind any of it. Is this the right time and place to discuss one of the most important issues facing our country? Absolutely not, and even if it were, Machete makes an absolute botch of it by shoehorning illegal immigration debate into its script in the most awkward moments and by answering calls for border control with, well, a machete.
So maybe being an exploitation movie gives Machete an excuse to slather itself in a one-sided exploration of the immigration debate, maybe it even gives it an excuse to do it poorly, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. The truth is that whenever Machete stops to let some character give a speech about the nobility of the worker or to have four characters who otherwise aren’t even really in the movie talk about how white people all have Mexican maids, it gets stupid and boring. But when the movie stops talking and starts chopping, it gets stupidly good.
In its best moments Machete will show you things beyond the ridiculous, things you’ve never seen on screen in any other movie, usually while a beautiful naked woman stands in the background. It’s gleefully violent, but in a way that’s more than just brutality for brutality’s sake. It’s creative, it’s sarcastic, at times it’s even flat out funny, and it all hinges on Danny Trejo as Machete. Yet his talent is primarily the ability to stand anywhere and look as though he’s made of stone. He does this best in the movie’s killer opening sequence, when we’re introduced to him as Mexico’s only uncorrupted Federale in the middle of a rescue gone horribly wrong. He’s punished for his refusal to take bribes, when Steven Seagal appears as a Mexican kingpin named Torrez and murders his family. It is perhaps worth noting that the only Mexican bad guy in the entire movie is played by a Russian-Irish American. He teams up with an assortment of cartoonishly evil, white, American villains led by Robert De Niro and of all people, Don Johnson.
Years after his defeat at the hands of Torrez, Machete resurfaces, exiled to Texas where he’s now an illegal immigrant making his way as a day laborer. By chance he’s hired not to clean sewers, but to murder a senator. Machete agrees, for reasons which are never entirely clear other than that it’s perfectly acceptable to murder anyone who wants to close the border, but it’s a set up and when things go badly the people who did Machete wrong are about to learn they’ve messed with the wrong Mexican.
What follows is an orgy of violence punctuated by the occasional off kilter immigration speech. The movie soars whenever it’s a straight up revenge flick with Machete focused on trying to get payback for the murder of his family. This is a movie in which a man uses a human intestine as a bungee cord, and I’m sorry, there’s just no way that isn’t cool. If you’re not on board with that, you probably shouldn’t buy a ticket.
But as much fun as there is to be had in human parts used as rope, it keeps tripping over the immigration issue. Maybe it’s not that Machete is so intent on addressing illegal immigration that’s the problem, maybe it’s just that it doesn’t really know what it wants to do with the issue when it addresses it. There’s a lot of cheering at the end when Machete’s Mexican day laborer army kills all the white people, but what are they cheering for? What are they trying to accomplish? What are all these people riding down the street in heavily armed low riders for, really? There’s a subplot involving governmental corruption which sort of works and in broader strokes having Machete root out a few bad politicians seems like a good idea. But when Jessica Alba stands on top of a car and shouts “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” what the hell is that supposed to mean? I don’t know and I’m pretty sure Machete doesn’t either. All you can really do is sit there and roll your eyes until Lindsay Lohan shows up naked again. Luckily, she shows up naked a lot.
And even though Machete wastes a lot of time trying to espouse incredibly retarded opinions on vital social issues, in the end naked Lindsay Lohan (who, somewhat hilariously, seems to have no idea she’s playing a crack whore) is far more important to your enjoyment of this movie than whether or not Predators director Nimrod Antal’s cameo as a racist white security guard with thoughts on border crossings actually fits in the script (it doesn’t).
Machete is a movie specializing in the ridiculous and the insane, and the more insane it gets the more fun you’ll have. This is in large part thanks to Robert Rodriguez, who is so good at this genre that he should never be allowed to direct anything that isn't a grindhouse movie ever again, and in part thanks to the cast which is unexpectedly really good at it too. Michelle Rodriguez looks better than she’s ever looked, Steven Seagal has a blast with a killer swordplay ending, and Danny Trejo grunts his way one step closer to becoming an action movie icon. Machete’s politics are a cringe-worthy mess but when it comes to over-the-top fun his blade is razor sharp.