By Jason Apuzzo. THE PITCH: Bad-ass ex-Federale ‘Machete’ (Danny Trejo) turns renegade in order to exact revenge on a Mexican druglord named Torrez (Steven Seagal) – and the corrupt, right-wing political machine in Texas that he secretly controls. Along the way, Machete gets help from some angry chicas played by Jessica Alba (a conflicted ICE agent) and Michelle Rodriguez (a kind of female Che Guevara who runs a taco truck).
THE SKINNY: I never thought I’d see a boring Robert Rodriguez film, but this one is. Rodriguez apparently decided to flesh out the Machete story from the original trailer with endless plot twists, political sloganeering and exposition. Do you think Inception was hard to follow? Or Salt? Try following Machete - it’s basically impossible. At 1 hr. 45 minutes the film is at least 30 minutes too long; it’s a kind of Roger Corman version of Traffic. And the politics? Off-the-charts left wing, and trite in the extreme.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK:
• Much like Planet Terror, Machete isn’t so much a film as a series of gags or skits that Rodriguez jammed together with the idea that somehow, some way, it would all fit together in the editing. You can just imagine him and his buddies swigging Patron Silver and thinking: “Let’s have a scene where Lindsay Lohan shows up in a nun’s outfit and starts blowing people away! … or a scene where Michelle Rodriguez shows up dressed like Snake Plissken and starts blowing people away! … or a scene where Machete tokes-up with a priest!,” etc. The film is a bloated, episodic mess that never gains any momentum – and is still ‘explaining’ its impossibly convoluted plot even in the midst of the final fight scene between Trejo and Seagal.
• Rarely have I seen a filmmaker show such complete contempt for anyone in his audience who might be politically to the right of, say, Pol Pot. Eisenstein and Pudovkin were really warm, cuddly, humanistic filmmakers compared to Robert Rodriguez. [They were also more talented.] Here are a few things you will be treated to in the film: a scene of a right-wing Texas senator (Robert De Niro) and his Minute Man-style henchman (Don Johnson) murdering a pregnant Mexican woman and her husband in cold blood along the border, and topping the moment off by shouting “Welcome to America!”; a right-wing Texas businessman (Jeff Fahey) crucifying a priest (Cheech Marin) on the altar cross in his own church, even driving the final nail into his wrist. This sort of stuff didn’t exactly put me in a great mood for the rest of what Rodriguez was dolling out, which wasn’t much to begin with.
• Robert De Niro is apparently under the impression that he has a gift for comedy. He seems to have believed this for many years, actually – despite ample evidence to the contrary. Every scene he appears in in Machete is a disaster. His mugging and grimacing as a nasty, demagogic, murderous right-wing Texas politician is so awful and inane as to be almost indescribable. Hey Bobby, do us all a favor and retire to New York and the cannoli – so we can live off memories of Godfather II, OK? You’re currently ranking below Snooki on my Italo-meter, both in personality and talent.
WHAT DOES WORK:
• Danny Trejo and Steven Seagal, more or less, to the extent that I care. Trejo’s face is like some kind of leathery Picasso painting. I’ve never seen anything like it on screen, actually; he makes Mickey Rourke look like Max Headroom. Otherwise, there wasn’t nearly enough of Steven Seagal in the film. Seagal is who Stallone should’ve had as the villain in The Expendables but didn’t.
• Every character in a Rodriguez film is vivid, whatever else one might say about them. Even Lindsay Lohan manages to pull it together here – although she isn’t exactly stretching herself by playing a drug-addled, rich-girl/internet porn queen.
• There are a few decent, pseudo-iconic cult moments in the film that almost redeem the tedium and the obnoxious politics: Trejo’s gory escape from a hospital; vengeful Michelle Rodriguez showing up in black leather and eyepatch at the end; the final Trejo-Seagal confrontation. But that’s about it.
Robert Rodriguez must be a strange, angry hombre. Most guys who start in the world of cult filmmaking – Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, Cameron, etc. – don’t want to stay there. They want to move up and out to a bigger audience. They want to deal with bigger themes, create larger myths. Another way of putting it is that they have old-fashioned middle class aspirations, they want to rise.
Rodriguez is the rare filmmaker who seems intent on remaining in the cult ghetto – peddling angry niche politics – no matter how well funded he is. That’s part of the political posturing of Machete – this idea that Rodriguez is himself part of a persecuted minority here in America, when in actuality he’s a rather well-funded filmmaker with swanky friends. Nobody’s really persecuting Robert Rodriguez, so far as I’m aware. It’s just a pose on his part.
I actually think Rodriguez stays in the world of niche films with niche politics because he’s afraid of trying anything really ambitious … because he might fail. So long as he sticks to ‘cult’ filmmaking, to making expensive shlock films with leftist messages, he gets to cruise.
This is precisely the reason, ironically, that he’s never going to reach the level of the filmmakers he obviously so admires – one thinks here of Sergio Leone, in particular, whom Rodriguez compulsively copies in film after film, Machete included. [Check out the opening title sequence of Machete - it's right out of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.] At Rodriguez’s age, Leone himself was doing everything he could to break out of the Italian sword-and-sandals ghetto to which his career had been confined. He was a striver, an achiever, who longed for the type of career that big American directors like Howard Hawks had. Leone re-charged his career by creating big, mythic landscapes populated with timeless characters like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, or Eli Wallach’s Tuco. It’s becoming quite clear that Robert Rodriguez does not have it in him to do anything that. Rodriguez is essentially becoming a kind of well-funded, Latino Roger Corman – although he doesn’t have Corman’s warmth or intelligence.
Rodriguez comes across to me these days as a kind of spoiled rich kid who doesn’t want to grow up. And his act is wearing thin – microscopically thin, actually, given Machete’s incendiary politics. I’m awfully tempted to tell Mr. Rodriguez to go screw himself, but then he would claim he’s being persecuted. Which is a joke, like his film.
Posted on September 3rd, 2010 at 8:12pm.