Back in my Expendables review, I remarked how its story pretty much boiled down to how
Hispanics are stupid and impotent folk who can’t do anything without the
white man helping them. I personally found the racist undertones very
difficult to ignore, but nonetheless subtle and hardly the focus of the
Now, meet that movie’s polar opposite, Machete.
It’s interesting to discuss this movie’s political stance because
it’s so unbelievably heightened. In fact, everything in this movie is
heightened. The stunts are totally outlandish, the satire is borderline
parody, the characters are all two-dimensional and each of the copious
nude scenes is invariably scored to porno beats.
This film does not do anything small. While any other action movie
might treat the immigration issue as subtext, this movie makes it
full-on text. However, it only gets really preachy about it on a few
occasions and even then, the short sermons are very cleverly disguised
as one-liners. More than anything, the matter is a device to set up the
dividing line between our characters: Who’s good and who’s bad.
Naturally, there’s no middle ground.
Most movies with such an approach to characterization have some kind
of surefire signal to mark our bad guys and cannon fodder (the rampant
promiscuity in Piranha 3D, for example). In this case, anyone
expressing sympathy for the downtrodden illegal immigrants are the good
guys and any ignorant, racist, bigoted fuckheads are doomed for short
lives. Sure, you could try to figure out our villains from our heroes by
way of following the literal story, but good luck with that. It’s
something to do with a senator getting re-elected so he can raise an
electric border fence, which helps a Mexican drug lord and gets the
senator’s aide lots of money or some shit like that. Really, all you
need to know and all you’re expected to know is that “pro-immigration
characters = good” and “racist characters = evil.”
It’s very much like an old blaxploitation film in that way, but with
Hispanic folk substituted for black people. In fact, the comparison
doesn’t end there. True to its origins in Grindhouse, that
woefully underseen 2007 ode to old-school D-grade cinema, the visuals in
this movie are beautifully retro. The film’s coloring changes
occasionally, scratches and grain are frequently seen and I’m pretty
sure a few frames were missing. However, the aging was done very
strategically, as the most obvious effects are up front during the
prologue. By that point, the narrative tone had already been so
well-established (Machete decapitates three guys in a single stroke
before meeting a nude young woman who smuggles a cell phone in her
crotch) that the artificial aging could be scaled back to let the story
and the acting carry most of the atmospheric load.
As a side note, I sincerely hope that whoever cut together the
post-Cinco de Mayo trailers for Machete is currently on the
lookout for a new job. The murky, blurry and incomprehensible visuals
seen in the film’s promos are absolutely nowhere to be found in the
finished product, to my great relief. In fact, unlike some other action
movies I could name (*coughExpendablescough*), the fight scenes in this
movie were brightly lit and clearly visible. Additionally, there were
stunts in this movie that I’d never seen before (rappelling from one
floor to another through the use of a live human’s intestines is
definitely a new one for me), which is really all that I ask of any
action movie. However, I did find the choreography and staging a bit
hard to follow in places.
The death of Lt. Von Stillman is a great example. When he finally
gets a bullet to the brain, the event is over so quickly and the editing
so vague that it took me a long time after the fact to remember that he
was dead. Stillman deserved better than that. He was the leader of the
army that Machete and his crew were fighting at the time. In his
introductory scene, he shot a pregnant border-crosser, just so she — an
illegal immigrant — could never give birth to a legal U.S. citizen.
This was a truly slimy guy, mostly thanks to his portrayal by Don
Johnson. Of the movie’s four major villains, Stillman was arguably the
biggest shitbag of the bunch, yet he’s practically killed offscreen. For
The only villain of the film who could possibly top Stillman in terms
of pure evil and strength of portrayal would be Mr. Booth. This guy is
at least a dozen different kinds of fucked-up, wrapped in the brilliant
package of Jeff Fahey’s performance. In this movie, Booth deals in
corrupt politics, profiteering from the suffering of illegal immigrants,
backstabbing figuratively, backstabbing literally and a few different
methods of murder. We also get hints that Booth may be lusting after his
own daughter. Take a moment to think about that and consider that the
daughter is played by Lindsay Lohan.
That’s right, Ms. Lohan is in a movie again. Fortunately, I’m very
pleased to say that she displays a tremendous amount of self-awareness
in this role. From the very first frame — even before we see her face!
— April Booth is shown as a drug-addicted girl caked in her own vomit,
working to make a name for herself through posing nude on the Internet.
Lohan is playing a straight-up parody of herself and it looks like she’s
having a great time doing it. I wouldn’t say that her career is back on
track just yet — showing some acting talent might help — but this is
definitely a huge step forward for her.
Speaking of has-been actors partially redeeming themselves through
self-parodies, Steven Seagall appears as the movie’s third villain. He’s
the drug boss who runs a secret fund for crooked politicians and who
killed Machete’s wife in front of him. Alas, Torrez denies Machete
proper vengeance, though his death scene is nonetheless suitably badass.
The character is further damaged by Seagall himself, who’s either
genuinely lost his acting talent by this point or just doesn’t bother
putting any effort into his role.
Robert De Niro doesn’t fare much better, though that may be due to
the nature of his role. Senator McLaughlin, after all, is really nothing
more than a figurehead for the other three villains. As a result, De
Niro’s performance sadly doesn’t yield anything particularly remarkable.
McLaughlin’s campaign ads, on the other hand, are satirical gold.
As for the rest…
- Jessica Alba is saddled with the law-enforcing “straight man”
character. She gets a lot of fun out of the role, succeeding
where Jessica Biel failed in The A-Team a few months back.
- Michelle Rodriguez is a touch over-the-top even for this movie, but
still provides a serviceable resistance leader.
- Cheech Marin doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he juices every
second for all it’s worth. I’ll be very disappointed if I never get to
say or hear “I absolve you of all your sins, now get the fuck out” in
everyday language just once.
But of course, it’s Machete himself that truly makes this movie.
Folks, this is the movie and the character that will define Danny
Trejo’s career forevermore. It took a long time, but Trejo finally found
a leading role that made good use of just how badass he is. This is a
guy so adept at kicking ass that he manages to break a guy’s arm without
even touching him. He knows the score, he gets the women and he kills
the bad guys. I really don’t know what else I have to say except that he
makes the movie worth watching entirely on his own.
Finally, I simply have to mention that this film is uproarious in its
satire and parody, particularly in its use of Latino stereotypes. For
example, of fleet of vehicles driving to battle is awesome, though a
fleet of tricked-out Impalas with outlandish paint jobs driving into
battle while bouncing on hydraulics is awesomely hilarious. The climax
also gathers illegal immigrant workers from all walks of life, meaning
that day laborers go charging forth on wheelbarrows and ice-cream carts.
Aside from the climax, we also get a couple of amusing scenes in which
Machete breaks into Booth’s home, using gardening equipment to get past
To sum up, Machete may very well be the best action movie of
the year. Its political undertones, cast performances, writing and
visuals all go toward strengthening the mindless action and all the
laughs inevitably resulting thereof. If you take offense at the notion
of a movie that glorifies illegal immigration, shut up and don’t see the
movie. Otherwise, give this a watch and bring your bloodlust with you.