Way back in the wild and heady days 2007, pop-culture princes Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino released the amazingly unsuccessful exploitation double-feature Grindhouse, and at the very head of that experience was this:
That’s amazing isn’t it? It’s big and preposterous and perfectly, stupidly fun. It set the tone for Grindhouse perfectly, and then, better, Rodriguez came to announce that he had written the whole damn thing and intended to turn it into a feature. And then, with his usual style he spent several years dragging his feet as he put together a ludicrous cast and team and then shot the whole thing over the course of a couple of weeks.
So now Machete is here. It is a real thing. And in a surprise that will shock (SHOCK!) the pants off of absolutely nobody, it is—like the film that spawned it—not particularly good.
Now, when I say that, I don’t want you to take my meaning to be that the movie is bad. It is, but in that intentional and cheesy manner of the new wave of exploitation films. Machete seems to be striving, first and foremost, to be a lot of fun…it’s full of guns and knives and explosions and bad one-liners and blood and manly men and hot women who all end up naked at some point or another. As a prime example, here’s a rundown of the first few minutes:
1: Machete kills a load of dudes. He is a Bad Cop On The Edge. YEEEEEAAAAAAHHHHH!
2: Full frontal female nudity.
3: Steven Segal is a Mexican drug kingpin who dresses like a European dictator and carries a bright red katana. Yes, this is the greatest cross-racial casting since Touch of Evil.
4: Blood and cursing and cheesy digital gore out the arse.
5: The naked woman pulls a cellular phone out of her vagina.
6: Terrible, terrible writing delivered with hilarious, scene-chewing aplomb.
7: A wonderful shooting style with an amazing sheen of artificial grit and scratches and hyper-saturated colors that you can’t look away from.
And it’s great. It’s over the top, it’s ridiculous, it looks great and it sounds great and it is JUST. SO. MUCH. FUN. And then the credits come up and they’re great too, and then the movie comes back and, well, it just never gets back to where it was…
When the credits end the film grain is gone. The color saturation remains, and it still looks spectacular, but without the grain it seems like more like a trick than an element. And just as suddenly all of the dynamic and cheesy cinematography disappears. And the bizarre, extreme gags. And the madcap way in which all of the characters just devour the friggin’ scenery. And when all of those things go, the fun kind of evaporates along with them.
And for a while the movie just slows to an absolute crawl. For the longest time, all it does is introduce characters and organizations and little flashes of story while Danny Trejo just kind of stands around looking like a meaner version of the rawhide chew your dog lost under the couch last year. Except for rare, brilliant moments, Machete is a fairly passive character until the last act, and it’s not just because there’s nothing for him to be doing—it’s because there’s just too much else going on around him. He does things, but there’s little evidence that he’s actually at the center of the story or that he’s really all that important. Hell, the whole crux of him being hired to assassinate the Senator is that he’s nobody important at all--and the movie keeps milking the idea that day laborers are nobodies for laughs for quite some time. Saying that Machete is the star of this show is like watching Syriana and afterwards claiming that it was all about Matt Damon’s character. He’s in it, but it isn’t about him.
It’s not that the story and the interplay is uninteresting; it’s this sort of coolly cartoonish false-flag/border war/drug cartel conspiracy plot. It’s not that there aren't outrageous gags and great moments. It’s not that there aren’t a half-dozen utterly fantastic characters who I would love to see movies about, because there are literally that many characters in this movie who get great setups and origin stories and are, like, perfect old-school grindhouse characters.
But that’s just the problem. There’s too much. There’s too much going on. It’s a movie that desperately calls for a simple, flashy approach and the script just does not accommodate that. It just gets bogged down in all of it’s own stuff and where it should be dreadfully entertaining it becomes…not tedious, but sort of pedestrian. Without the flashy cinematography and filters, the film looks like exactly what it is: cheaply shot on mid-range digital cameras. And without a tight, sharp script it becomes increasingly clear that Rodriguez approached this project like he seems to most of his children’s films: throw crap at the wall and keep anything that sticks.
And that’s so frustrating, because the last time Rodriguez ventured into this territory we ended up with Planet Terror, which is fun and sharply written and tightly over-directed into a brilliant play on exploitation and zombie movies. So we know that ol’ RobRod can do this kind of stuff and do it so well it’ll break you open laughing. But with Machete it’s more like Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse; Death Proof, which starts out just as strong as Machete does, and just as quickly devolves into tedious fucking about as the director plays around on set with his man-crush.
So I guess you can call me disappointed. Call me disappointed because most of this movie is boring and unfunny. Call me disappointed for not being able to forgive that just because it has some good kills and some cheesy sex scenes set to ‘70s porn music. Call me disappointed because I walked into a movie starring Danny Trejo--a performer who I normally feel is funny and lively in his smaller bits--only to find that he sleepwalks through a starring role. Call me disappointed because when the end credits came up and they announce that “Machete Will Return” in not one, but two other movies that might possibly (read: probably not) be made someday, I was less interested in that and more in the prospect of a spin-off about Lindsay Lohan’s character.
I don’t think I need to say more than that.