First, you must free your mind. Empty out all those preconceptions of what makes for good cinema and simply relax and allow the film to wash over you. Don't think too hard about what great cinema is all about. Forget everything you know and just watch. Now you are ready. Ready for Robert Rodriguez's latest Giddy Grindhouse Grand Guignol, Machete. Well, at least as ready as you ever will be.
Let's face it, if you are looking for great cinema, you are not going to find it within the B-movie confines of Machete. The writing, though archetypal, is rather simplistic in its oft-monosyllabic grunts and groans (splayed out equally with flesh-splitting sound effects all courtesy of that titular steel blade. The acting too is quite simplistic in its rendering. With the notable exceptions of a rumpus Bobby De Niro as a right-wing nut job US Senator with delusions of an electrified border fence between us and his hated wetbacks (his word, not mine!) and Jeff Fahey as a steely-eyed spin-doctor with a penchant for the most extreme political strategies (namely assassination) it is mostly mediocre throughout. In the case of certain cast members (Mr. Seagall, Ms. Lohan, I am talking to you) the acting is quite atrocious indeed. The direction, though done with an obvious, and quite zealous, lust for cinema and its myriad histories (A, B and C movies alike!), is merely an affectation for cheap childhood movie memories come to life in big budget vulgarity.
In fact, the whole production, with its bloody cartoonish mannerisms and quippy one-liners ("Machete don't text", "You fucked with the wrong Mexican" - I can see the inevitable T-shirt marketing now) can be construed as the worst in cinema. That ugly thing that once passed for moviemaking in certain dark corners of the seventies and was last heralded by Rodriguez and pal Quentin Tarantino in their 2007 double-feature-back-from-Hell Grindhouse. Let's face it, if you are looking for great cinema, you are not going to find it in Machete. You are bound to be as sorely disappointed as those characters in the movie who thought they could back stab Machete and live to tell the tale. Well, perhaps not quite as sorely disappointed as they, but damn close. But then again, the idea of bad cinema is exactly the point of Machete - to glorify that very same ugly dark-cornered cinema that it is also seemingly making fun of. To make a mountain of a movie out of the molehill of Grindhouse ethics - and who better to do such a thing than one of the originators of what one could call neo-Grindhouse if one were so inclined.
Granted the one-trick pony, two-man show of this (completely made up right here on this spot!) sub-genre is probably passing its prime no more than three years after its auspicious debut in RR & QT's aforementioned late-night double-feature picture-show (though the sadly lacking box office for that movie may tell us its rime was never there in the first place). Perhaps audiences wanting slick action pieces (the films of Zack Snyder are the closest to the aesthetic as Hollywood is going to get otherwise - a sort of glossy Grindhouse) are not going to sit still for an ass-ugly, machete-wielding, revenge-seeking Mexican throwback to the days of blood-drenched mayhem in the second billed movie of the long-dead drive-in experience. Perhaps they are idiots for such a thing. Perhaps. Tarantino has moved onto bigger and better things (the best goddamn movie of last year! - "I think this just might be my masterpiece") though keeping some of his Grindhouse sensibilities intact. Rodriguez seems to be slower to the take, but no bother, since Machete is a much better movie than those slick-action-wanting movie crowds are ever going to get. A better movie than they deserve.
Basically an elongated version of the fake trailer Rodriguez had made for his portion of Grindhouse, Mexican character actor Danny Trejo plays his one-time Federali-turned-one man blade-heavy army with the enthusiasm of a pissed off badger who just wants to be left alone in his sorrows. But that badger is going to kick some ass (and decapitate some heads!) if you're not careful. He might even fuck your wife and daughter if he so chooses. Machete does improvise Trejo tells us. Full of as many Mexicans (or half-Mexicans in one case) as Hollywood can provide - Michele Rodriguez as a taco truck driving revolutionary nicknamed She (get it?), Jessica Alba as a renegade immigration officer, inexplicably dressed in skin tight jeans and stiletto heels (okay, it's not that inexplicable) and Cheech Marin reprising his role from the fake trailer as a shotgun-toting priest (and wouldbe Jesus figure) - Rodriguez has handed us just want middle America (and many of the villainous characters in the film - including Don Johnson in his role of white supremacist border vigilante - a role that gives him a quite strange and unexpected "introducing" billing, almost as if he is starting anew after all these years) doesn't want. But what do they know - they probably voted for Sarah Palin.
When all is said and done, Machete ends up being great cinema, in spite of itself - in fact because of itself - and its reliance on those aforementioned cheap childhood movie memories. There is just no denying how goddamn fun this movie is, from its south-of-the-border, chop-socky beginning to its Che-meets-Cheech & Chong finale. It may be bad cinema (for bad cinema's sake!) but it is pure cinema at its very core (a sort of meta-homage if you will), and that makes it great cinema in this critic's book. [09/05/10]