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Wednesday, 10 November 2010

For the Chop: Machete


Nothing lives without a heart - okay, plants do, and some real estate agents, but let's run with this metaphor - and while it might be small and withered even the exploitation film needs a heart pumping blood through its veins to stop it from being nothing but a lifeless automaton. Unfortunately, whatever his merits as a writer and director - and most of those merits seem to involve making good-looking films fast and relatively cheap - Robert Rodriguez isn't someone known for putting any kind of heart in his films.

Still, it’s not like the exploitation genre requires a big personal statement or anything, right? And Machete (based on a fake trailer made for his and Quentin Tarantino's uneven Grindhouse experiment) certainly manages to look like everything you could ask for in an exploitation film. The story is certainly trashy enough, as machete-wielding Mexican Federale Machete (Danny Trejo) sees his family killed in front of him by an evil drug lord (Steven Seagal) then turns up three years later as a day labourer in a Texan border town where the forces of immigrant-bashing evil (a vigilante-leading Don Johnson, Robert DeNiro as a crooked senator) are up against "the network", an organisation led by a taco-shack owner (Michelle Rodriguez) that helps Mexicans cross the border. Machete gets hired to kill DeNiro's senator as part of a re-election scheme, only when they double-cross him it turns out Machete is hard to kill - unlike pretty much everyone he goes up against.

This is hardly an abject failure. Certainly individual scenes are over-the-top in all manner of enjoyable and entertaining ways. Having Machete get it on with every woman he comes across to the accompaniment of a sexy bass line never gets old, and most of the many machete-based executions are laughably excessive - as are most of the scenery chewing performances, though Seagal's "Mexican" accent deserves special acknowledgment. So what more do you want from an exploitation film? They’re meant to be churned out quickly and shoddily, so as long as you tick the right boxes it should all work just fine, right?

In that light, the appeal of the exploitation genre for Rodriguez is easy to fathom. Even when he takes his time he films tend to feel rushed and shallow, as if he was bored with them long before it came time to actually make them (which might explain why he has a co-director here, and he handed off his Predators script to another director entirely). But it’s also a fundamental misunderstanding of the exploitation genre, which is why Machete never really works.

Exploitation films were made fast and cheap and typically couldn’t afford the usual audience draws: decent acting, smart scripts, big effects and scenes. So often they’d grab hot-button topics - “Ripped from today’s headlines” – to spice things up. Rodriguez understands that much, which is why his story is built around illegal Mexican immigrants. But he doesn’t have the courage of his exploitation conviction here: rather than actually tap into the fears and tensions around this issue by, say, having the Mexican immigrants be out-and-out evil (like the Cubans in Chuck Norris’ Invasion USA), or having the evil white folks be just plain evil, there’s a whole load of double dealing as just about every bad guy turns out to be either breath-takingly cynical and / or in the thrall of Seagal’s drug lord, who is safely Mexican (okay, “Mexican”), so it’s okay for whites to hate him. The hot-button issue is safely defused – no-one’s going to get riled up over this vision of American border policy – but it drains the drama and excitement from the film as well.

Exploitation works best when it works with black and white. You don’t watch a Death Wish film for a nuanced look at the social problems that cause street crime: you watch it because you want to see scum blown away. The hero’s character might be paper-thin, but there’s always just enough there to motivate their brutal actions. But despite having his family killed in the opening minutes of the film, Machete isn’t really driven by anything: the next time we see him it’s three years later and he’s working as a day labourer! That isn’t the actions of a man driven to avenge the deaths of his loved ones – and in fact, his family are never mentioned again. The hero is at the heart of the exploitation genre, but here he’s a void, an empty space around which the massive supporting cast swirl.

It doesn’t help that in trying to shoe-horn in every one of the moments from the original trailer, Rodriguez makes many of them seem rushed and flat. The threesome between Machete and the wife and daughter of the sinister Jeff Fahey should have been a high point of the story, a scene where our hero displays his total dominance over the villain. Instead, it’s a throw-away scene that comes out of nowhere and means nothing. Same for Machete surfing an explosion on a motorbike with a minigun bolted to the front, same for Linsay Lohan as a killer nun, same for pretty much every cool moment in the original trailer. They’re all here, but they don’t mean anything.

Machete ends up a film that sounds cooler than it is. Even the trashiest exploitation films gave you a reason to care about – or be horrified by - what was going on: for all the blood splashed about on screen, this remains a disappointingly lifeless affair. Still, if nothing else, it remains a film you could make an awesome trailer from… oh, wait.

Anthony Morris

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