(Danny Trejo goes swimming with your mom)
In my heart I’m aware of the universal truth that every time you criticize Danny Trejo, an angel gets shanked in prison, but I can’t help it. Machete needed to be either a little bit better or a little bit worse. As much as I wanted to like it, it didn’t quite work as an action movie, it wasn’t quite an exploitation movie, and it wasn’t quite a parody or a straight comedy. In fact, aside from a handful of isolated moments of greatness, it was actually kind of dull.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a few amazing scenes: Danny Trejo rappelling out a window using a bad guy’s guts for a rope, hot, naked Mayra Leal hiding a cell phone inside her vagina (call me old-fashioned, but I’m a sucker for hot, naked girls hiding things in their vaginas). But after opening with a bang (“Machete literally opens with a bang! -Pete Hammond“), Machete sort of fizzles out when it can’t find a consistent tone. The coolest scenes actually work better as two-to-five minute clips separate from the movie because there just isn’t anything to hold onto in the story beyond the ridiculousness factor. Which means that whenever someone isn’t getting their head chopped off or a grenade stuffed up their butt, you just sort of sit there tapping your foot looking at your watch waiting for nudity or violent decapitation, like when I watch The View.
The best B-movies draw you in with pulpy, raunchy ridiculousness, and then keep you engaged when you find yourself caring about the story almost in spite of yourself. Machete never makes it happen. (The other option is making a full-on parody of the genre like Black Dynamite, but Machete is no Black Dynamite). For one thing, the story is kind of confusing. There are too many characters — Jeff Fahey as the aide to anti-immigration senator Robert DeNiro, who hires Machete to shoot his boss then double crosses him, Steven Seagal as a Mexican drug lord who also has a stake in DeNiro’s plan to build an electrified border fence, Michelle Rodriguez as the Mexican Harriet Tubman known as “Shé”, Don Johnson as a ruthless Minuteman, Jessica Alba as a sympathetic Border Patrol agent, Cheech Marin as Danny Trejo’s brother, Lindsay Lohan as Fahey’s camwhore daughter — they’re all pretty great on their own (with the possible exception of Lohan, who seems to be playing a bored, wink-wink version of herself in between cigarette breaks), but what works to get people into the theater doesn’t always work to make the movie… you know… good. I admit I too was drawn in by all the awesome names on the marquee, but trying to stuff that many people into a movie like so many day laborers into a van conversion just gets confusing. And confusion is the kiss of death for a movie like this. It’s harder to laugh when you don’t know what the f*ck is going on. It’s why dumb chicks have terrible senses of humor.
Not only that, I’m not sure if the goal even was to make us laugh. It’s a strange mix of over-the-top action, Three-Stooges-style slapstick, half-baked political satire, and long, seemingly earnest stretches of exposition. Individual set pieces are brilliant, lovingly filmed by Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis in that grainy, saturated film stock with a dynamic mix of mid shots and leathery close-ups, but neat action sequences are really all the movie has going for it, and they get worse as the movie gets further along. By the end, I was reminded why I never really liked Robert Rodriguez before Planet Terror (which was great). The final scene is full of flourishes that will remind you of the guitar-case bomb in Once Upon a Time in Mexico or the wiener-mounted pistol in Dusk Till Dawn. I have nothing against silly or juvenile, but there’s fun silly and then there’s who-cares silly. Machete‘s final battle sequence is a mish-mash of things that are kind of lame (a muscle car with a turbo charger that shoots rockets? What are you, five?) and things that are confusing (who is doing what and why?). It borders on obnoxious, because when you can’t follow the story (because it’s half-baked), all you see are actors being manic and needy.
You’ll root for Machete to be good, but you’ll have to root pretty hard (I see you giggling, Australians). A 20-minute compilation of the best scenes would be great, the movie is not.
Post script: I can confirm that Lindsay Lohan never really shows anything beyond a nipple that you can kinda maybe see through her hair extensions — she definitely shows less than she has in those “artsy” magazine spreads. The girl on the left in the banner pic is supposed to be her character, for instance. …You know, in case you were wondering.