The Aisle Steat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"MACHETE"

Machete
Danny Trejo gets his first starring role in the phony trailer-turned-real movie Machete.

Like a lot of people, I enjoyed the fake movie trailers that were part of the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse. Watching them, you got the feeling that they could actually be turned into real movies. And now, thanks in part to internet popularity, one of them has.

Machete stars character actor Danny Trejo as the title character, a renegade Mexican Federale who is left for dead after a confrontation with a vicious drug lord named Torrez (Steven Seagal). Once recuperated, he returns to the U.S. where he's hired by mystery man Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate Texas Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro), who is running on a radical anti-immigration platform. Machete turns up for the job, not so much to kill McLaughlin as to investigate what's going on, only to discover that Booth has set him up. Having – in the paraphrased parlance of the original fake trailer - “messed with the wrong Mexican,” Machete sets out to make Booth pay. His efforts cause him to encounter a crooked law enforcement official (Don Johnson), an immigration agent (Jessica Alba), and a freedom fighter (Michelle Rodriguez) who runs an underground network to help illegals. Assisting Machete in his fight is his priest brother (Cheech Marin) who has no problem throwing aside the values of his church when it comes to protecting kin.

Machete is exactly what you think it will be. The fake Grindhouse trailer is an accurate representation of the movie's tone. Much like the recent Piranha 3D, it revels in exploitation movie traditions, such as gratuitous nudity, gratuitous sex, and gratuitous violence. All of this is presented in such an over-the-top manner that it's hard to be offended. In one scene, Machete reaches into a man's stomach, pulls out his intestines, then uses them to rappel down the front of a building. That's the kind of knowingly outlandish stuff the movie is filled with. The closest it comes to being legitimately objectionable is in the oft-repeated suggestion that Booth is turned on by his own slutty daughter (Lindsay Lohan).

Danny Trejo is a terrific action hero because he's so unique. Many big screen action stars are kind of similar (a flaw The Expendables unintentionally points out), but Trejo has such a specific, hard-to-define charisma that he's automatically separate from the pack. My best friend pointed out to me that the actor's physical look is so powerful that he doesn't need to do much in order to make an impact. That's true – Trejo wisely underplays here, letting his aura speak for itself.

The rest of the cast is good too. Don Johnson and Steven Seagal both effectively ooze malice as the bad guys. (If Seagal wants a career playing villains, he could clearly have one.) Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez are better than you'd expect too, rising above the “eye candy” elements of the characters they're playing. And DeNiro? Well, what a joy to see him riffing on hardcore right wing-ism without tipping over into absurdity. He's obviously the best actor in this cast, yet he clearly understands the demands of the genre and is having a good time meeting them.

Machete is filled with sublimely eccentric action, and it has some really good laughs as well. It feels like a grindhouse movie. But there's more under the surface than you might initially guess. The so-called “blaxploitation” pictures of the 70's frequently seethed with rage about the racial inequalities that were part of that era and previous ones. Similarly, Machete has an undeniable anger beneath its jokingly sleazy surface. Its message is clear: we're all in America because our ancestors immigrated here at some point; to deny others the right to build a life in this country is hypocritical at best, evil at worst. Some people are going to be really mad at the film for saying that. Personally, I love that a goofball action flick can also be capable of sparking a bit of debate afterward.

No one is going to mistake Machete for great filmmaking. Even with the political subtext, it's essentially a joke, a satire of less-than-reputable entertainment from a bygone period in cinematic history. I actually wish that, like Grindhouse, it had more wacky, attention-getting gimmicks (faux scratches on the print, missing reels, maybe even a few fake trailers of its own). Then again, considering that the general public didn't seem to “get” Grindhouse, there may be a reason why Robert Rodriguez chose to downplay that.

No matter what, though, this is a fun B-movie. You're not likely to remember it a year from now, but sometimes lightweight entertainment is okay, especially when it's done with a wink, a smile, and a severed head.

( out of four)


Machete is rated R strong bloody violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.