Thursday, September 2, 2010

Butt-kicking galore in 'Machete'

OK, Machete, we won't ask you to text.
Three years ago, director Robert Rodriguez included a trailer for a movie called Machete in his portion of Grindhouse, the Rodriguez/Tarantino B-movie revel. The trailer was a spoof. The movie didn’t exist.

The spoof has become reality with the release of Machete, a full-blown, helping of butt-kicking, B-movie action. Rodriguez, who shares directing credit with Ethan Maniquis, serves up a hunk of grindhouse fare that has been amped-up and given booming production values that make you wonder whether it's possible to mix movies and steroids.

Can we think of this as a surprise? Hardly. Rodriguez's love for exploitation-style movies was apparent from the start. He kicked off his career in 1992 with El Mariachi, a super-cheapo riff on exploitation movies.

Like its predecessors, Machete mixes over-the-top violence, humor, severed body parts, beautiful women and growling machismo. But this particular concoction is designed to boot the guilty pleasure of the grindhouse into mainstream multiplexes. For me, the mainstreaming of cultish fare always diminishes its power, and Machete is no exception. These movies might have been funnier when the people who made them weren't looking for laughs.

The story revolves around an ex-Federale named Machete (Danny Trejo), a super-strong Mexican who knows how to wield his weapon. Trejo's Machete is thrown way off his game when his wife and daughter are murdered by a Mexican drug lord named Torrez (Steven Seagal with a Spanish accent). Machete crosses the border into the U.S., keeping a low profile until he’s drawn into a plot to assassinate a State Senator (Robert De Niro with a southern accent) who wants to build a border fence.

Linking the movie to immigration issues ultimately turns Machete into a Latino revenge saga aimed at all the folks who rail against illegal immigrants. Trejo, who has the kind of look that could frighten small children, makes an unexpected hero who must fight off drug lords, corrupt vigilantes and a mysterious political operative (Jeff Fahey).

As you can tell from De Niro’s presence, the movie is cast for fun. Don Johnson shows up as a ruthless vigilante who likes to shoot people who cross the border; Cheech Marin signs on as Machete’s brother, a priest who never will serve as a model for non-violent behavior.

Say this: Rodriguez understands his audience. There’s plenty of pulchritude, notably from Michelle Rodriguez, as a woman who runs a network that offers support to illegals, and Jessica Alba, as a customs agent who prefers justice to law and who enjoys jumping Machete’s bones. If that’s not enough to make macho pulses race, Rodriguez includes nude scenes from Lindsay Lohan, who plays Fahey’s character’s wayward daughter.

Note: Given her recent troubles, Lohan has turned into an instant sight gag, not really where any actress wants to be.

Most of the action has been engineered to draw whoops from the multitudes, including a signature line for Trejo’s character: “Machete don’t text.”

Of course, with this kind of movie, the violent envelope must be pushed: An escape scene involving a ropey strand of intestine provides what either can be regarded as a high or low point, depending on how much tolerance you have for gore.

Rodriguez seems to have achieved his goals here, but I’m more than a little tired of the adolescent humor and super-charged energy of movies that exult in their pulpy origins. Rodriguez is good at what he does in Machete, but I half wonder whether it's worth doing at all.

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