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Machete / ***½ (R)

Posted Wednesday, September 8, 2010, at 10:14 PM

(Photo)
Danny Trejo is "Machete" in Robert Rodriguez's latest grindhouse masterpiece.
20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis. Written by Robert Rodriguez and Alvaro Rodriguez. Running time: 105 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity.)

grindhouse (from dictionary.com)

--n

chiefly (U.S.)

a. A low-budget cinema specializing in violent or exploitative films.

b. (as a modifier): a grindhouse film.

It's hard to describe the greatness involved in a movie that is directed with style. The movie in description can so easily fall into something that people either want to see or don't want to see. In the case of Robert Rodriguez's latest tribute to the 70's grindhouse pictures, "Machete", I fear that any sort of description is going to turn people off. However, "Machete" is a grindhouse masterpiece.

Some of you may not be aware of the strange history that brought "Machete" to the big screen. In 2007, Rodriguez and fellow grindhouse aficionado, Quentin Tarantino, released a double feature aptly titled "Grindhouse". The three hour homage to everything grindhouse and 70s exploitation included two feature-length films from each director, Rodriguez contributing another grindhouse masterpiece "Planet Terror". In between the films, the directors had some other fans of the genre contribute fake trailers for other grindhouse features that did not actually exist. Rodriguez also contributed a trailer for a movie about a renegade Mexican Federale named "Machete". Although, everything in the "Grindhouse" experience was deliciously delivered in perfect trashy, guilty pleasure excess, it was the trailer for "Machete" that stood out for most viewers. There was so much enthusiasm for the fake movie that Rodriguez decided to make it a real movie.

The movie stars Danny Trejo as the titular Machete. You probably don't recognize his name, but if you've seen his face before, you won't have forgotten it. Trejo is an ex-con who has made quite an acting career out of playing thugs and bad guys. With almost 200 acting credits to his resume since 1983, he's one of the most prolific character actors in the business, appearing in a wide range of movies, from "Heat" to "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy". He has a face that says he's seen things you can only imagine, and yet, many of his more fleshed out roles have been grounded with some heart.

In this movie, he's an ex-Federale who's been betrayed and left for dead by his superior Torrez (Steven Seagal, "Under Siege"). As an illegal in the United States, Machete's hired by a man named Booth (Jeff Fahey, "Wyatt Earp") to assassinate an incumbent U.S. Senator (Robert DeNiro, "Jackie Brown") whose main platform is strengthening the borders against immigrants. The assassination attempt really a set up to bolster the Senator's poll numbers with sympathy, leaving Machete as the fall guy.

Meanwhile, Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba, "Sin City") is investigating an underground illegal immigrant organization known as The Network. She suspects it's run out of a taco stand run by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez, "Fast & Furious"), who may also be the Mexican revolutionary known as Shé. Needless to say Machete crosses the radar of both women in his flight from the law after his frame up.

This almost makes the plot of "Machete" seem like some sort of conventional thriller. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Machete" is grindhouse from grinning ear to ear. Machete has a sexuality about him that could only be believed in this grindhouse context. The only women in his world are bucksome and beautiful, and they all end up in bed with Machete, eventually, despite the fact that he's not exactly George Clooney.

Take note of the fun the filmmakers have with the action sequences. Most of the action is totally absurd, involving beheadings and disembowelments with weapons that were never intended for such purposes. There are Gatling guns mounted on motorcycles and sexy nurses wielding Uzis. Rodriguez doesn't just throw all this absurdity into the mix at random. Sometimes he sets this ridiculousness up with a good lead into his punchlines. There's one sequence that follows Machete into a hospital where the doctor is explaining to the nurses how long the large intestine is. Sure enough when the bad guys show up for Machete's head, he's forced to escape through a window using one of the baddies' large intestine as an escape rope.

Much like the "Grindhouse" double feature, Rodriguez and his co-director, Ethan Maniquis (a long time editor for Rodriguez), use washed out lighting and digitally added scratch marks to the picture to give the film the look of a poorly archived grindhouse film. Great attention is paid to authenticating the grindhouse feel of the film through both the filming and acting techniques to give it an unpolished nuance. Yet somehow, all this homage develops into its own style and adds to the movie's appeal.

Certainly, this grindhouse approach is an acquired taste, but it's a cinematically rich style and a great guilty pleasure. Rodriguez promises that Machete will return in "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again". With his involvement in this film and in the "Grindhouse" experiment with Tarantino, Rodriguez has converted me to a fan of this style of filmmaking. Filmmakers with the skill and artistry of Rodriguez and Tarantino can turn homage into something greater than its inspiration. I can't wait to see what the new grindhouse movement produces next.

"Machete" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.

Visit A Penny in the Well for star rating scale, DVDs, and my latest Penny Thoughts.



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ANDREW D. WELLS
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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