Friday, September 10, 2010

'Machete' is good bad cinema

Robert Rodriguez is a filmmaker who loves to make intentionally bad films. A lot of movies get branded as “so bad it's good.” In the case of “Machete,” the film is so good at being bad it is good.

“Machete” is an expansion of a fake trailer that was included in the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature “Grindhouse.” Veteran character actor Danny Trejo stars as the title character, an ex-Federale, who is hired to kill a senator (Robert DeNiro) but is betrayed. Machete uncovers an elaborate conspiracy and seeks bloody vengeance.

Similar to when a three-minute “Saturday Night Live” skit gets expanded to a feature length, there is some padding going on here and not everything works, but on balance it entertains for those with a high tolerance for gory violence, strong language and gratuitous nudity.

The film is a throwback to the exploitation films of the 1970s and, although it is set in the present day, with the use of computers and cell phones it looks and sounds like a grungy low-budget B-movie from that era.

In “Grindhouse” Rodriguez and Tarantino each contributed a film that was an homage to these grimy, often poorly acted and poorly written movies that in their awfulness had a certain off-kilter charm. Many of Tarantino's films have been riffs on some form of exploitation film, but he attempts to raise the genres he works within to another level of quality. Rodriguez is merely content to replicate.

There's a self-awareness to the proceedings. Lines that would've been unintentionally funny in an actual exploitation film are intentionally meant to get a laugh in their cheesiness. As with “Planet Terror,” Rodriquez' half of “Grindhouse" and “From Dusk Til Dawn,” Rodriquez takes great joy in frolicking around in this low-brow material.

Now while the film doesn't carry the strong characters, plotting or dialogue of a Tarantino film, Rodriquez does slide in some sly, if obvious, political satire in what will surely get the film branded as liberal propaganda by conservatives.

DeNiro's senator is running for re-election in Texas and has built his campaign on having no tolerance for illegal immigrants. He even gladly shoots a Mexican crossing the border. There are a couple very funny fake political ads that only slightly exaggerate right-wing rhetoric.

Rodriquez has populated the cast with current Hollywood starlets like Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriquez (no relation) and faded stars such as Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal and Lindsey Lohan, who in a depressing bit of stunt casting, stars as Fahey's drug-addled daughter. For those interested in this sort of thing, Lohan is nude for a good portion of her role. Rodriquez-regular Cheech Marin also shows up as Machete's foul-mouthed, gun-totting brother, who is also a priest.

Given the film isn't reaching from Oscar caliber performances, the acting is actually pretty good. The cast finds a nice balance of campiness and sincerity. Johnson is clearly having fun hamming it up as a vigilante border patroller and, surprisingly enough, Seagal is decent as a
Mexican drug lord.

DeNiro is slumming it in this movie, but is in on the joke. Fahey is an underrated actor who along with DeNiro brings some acting gravitas to the film. And then there is Trejo as Machete. Trejo has been popping up in action movies for years, most recently in “Predators,” and in his first lead role he brings dry deadpan delivery and an intimidating, but likable screen presence.

As a director, some of Rodriquez' actions scene unfold too quickly and sometimes it is unclear what just happened, but his imagination for the twisted is seemingly endless. Those with the same warped sense of humor will appreciate his quite unexpected use of a human intestine.

“Machete” achieves exactly what it set out to achieve and it works on that level. It is absolutely not for everyone, but for a certain kind of moviegoer it'll be a lot of fun.

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