MACHETE: Habla Inglés? Depends on the Question

Machete (2010) – Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis – Starring Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Robert DeNiro, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Steven Seagal, Electra Avellan, Elise Avellan, and Don Johnson.

There is something undeniably pleasing about watching a movie that knows what it wants to be and goes ahead and delivers it, but while MACHETE knows it wants to be one of those “Grindhouse” action movies, there is something slightly off-putting in how MACHETE manipulates the genre and the expectations of the audience in order to deliver the expected thrills.

That seems like a completely silly thing to say, of course, and maybe it is, but MACHETE is an odd-mix of Robert Rodriguez staples who seem right at home (Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin), legitimately good actors who usually get B-movie roles (Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez), legitimately bad actors attempting to buy some cool (Steven Seagal, Lindsay Lohan), a star no one quite knows what to do with because she’s not very good as an actress (Jessica Alba), and Robert DeNiro, who looks like he wandered onto the wrong set and decided to don a silly accent and costume in the hopes the studio people wouldn’t find him and force him to go back to work on the latest Fockers movie. Then there’s Don Johnson, who actually feels like he belongs in the movie more than anyone else, including Trejo. Throw in some contemporary politics and MACHETE ends up being its own kind of unsatisfactory urban fantasy – one where you can fight the system by physically fighting the system.

The inclusion of actors like DeNiro and Alba hurt the movie more than they help it because if this was a true B-movie, I’m guessing there’s no way either one of these two would be in it, but because it’s Rodriguez (for my money, one of the best directors working right now) and because Rodriguez is cool, he can get them. Now, granted, neither DeNiro or Alba are what they were. DeNiro Being DeNiro is at least 13 years in the rearview (in 1997 he was in Wag the Dog, Jackie Brown, and Cop Land; since then there’s been a lot of silly comedies and limp cop movies) but he’s still considered one of the Great Actors.

Alba is truly one of those professional oddities that crop up from time to time in every line of work; she’s not a very good actress (at times she is truly awful) but she has some cache as a star. Why? Just because she’s gorgeous? This is Hollywood – there are gorgeous women struggling to get bit parts as “Dead Corpse #2″ on CSI: Miami. (David Caruso would have been awesome in this movie.) I think some of it is that Alba just genuinely seems like an awesome person. Doesn’t she just seem like an incredibly likeable person to you? I know that I see her on screen and I want to like her. I want her to be in movies and have a good career and stay out of the gossip mags and raise her kids without trouble and all that. Why? Just because she’s gorgeous? I don’t buy it.

What I do buy is that she seems to be at a kind of professional crossroads in her career – sure, she’s hot, but I get the feeling that this isn’t enough for anyone anymore – not me, not Hollywood, not the movie going audience, and importantly, not even her. Heck, the Crazy Babysitter Twins (Electra and Elise Avellan) appear here as, um, Crazy Nurse Twins(?) and they’re every bit as gorgeous as Alba is, so why does she get to play the lead and they get to appear as fetish objects?

This scene is not actually in the movie. I'm pretty sure you don't mind seeing it anyway.

When I see Alba in a movie, I picture studio execs struggling to find the right vehicle to put her in to take advantage of this good will she’s accumulated. It’s like they’ve tried action movies, rom coms, horror films, superhero movies, silly comedies, indie comedies … all without any satisfaction. When I see her in MACHETE all I can think (and I know this is a horrible thing to say, especially since it’s not true) is that she’s on some studio contract with five films left and they’ve completely given up on how to use her so they’re just dumping her in things, hoping she can pull in a few viewers to make the cheap-ass movie without mass appeal profitable.

So when she’s in something like MACHETE, it just feels like the wrong fit. She has this eternally youthful, soft look that makes her totally out of place in the hardened world of MACHETE. Which, I get it, is the point. But just because it’s the point doesn’t mean it works. It worked fine in Sin City because that movie was so stylized that an idealized beauty looked perfectly at home, but here her youth, her softness, her less-than-stellar acting just gets her destroyed in every scene she’s in, and when she decides to run off with Machete (Trejo) at the end, it feels like a stupid decision by an impressionable girl, not a hard decision by a grown up.

I get that Alba’s softness is supposed to be the perfect binary for Michelle Rodriguez’s bad-ass-ness; that we’re watching the woman who’s still really a girl squaring off with the woman who’s lived longer years than her age. One is an idealistic cop living by the code of law and the other is the realistic self-styled freedom fighter living by the code of life. I get what Rodriguez (Robert) is going for here, but Alba just can’t stand up to Rodriguez (Michelle). Whenever they’re on the screen together Rodriguez just eats Alba alive. She doesn’t even need to try – the merest look, the smallest shrug, and Alba withers away.

All of Alba’s withering would ultimately pay off if I believed her conversion narrative, but I don’t. I understand her changing empathy, but when she stands on a car and rallies the Mexican crowd by using the tired, “We didn’t move across the border, the border moved across us” speech, I can’t believe they don’t laugh at her. Rodriguez simply fails to provide a convincing epiphanic moment for Sartana Rivera. She pays no price in this whole bloody tale. For all the violence, all the gore, all the gunshots and bullet wounds and splattering of blood, Sartana Rivera is never really anything more than Jessica Alba at a photoshoot, always looking totally idealized and slightly apart from the world she’s in, so when she climbs onto Machete’s lap at the end of the film, it still feels like she’s a little girl needing someone else to tell her what to do.

(Wow. I just wrote about 900 words saying mean things about Jessica Alba. I feel like a cliché. And a dick.)

Alba isn’t the only young-but-already-a-veteran starlet walking through MACHETE. Lindsay Lohan is in the movie for some reason, and she really does seem like someone desperately attempting to re-ignite her career. Instead of ignition, she just looks like a match that’s already burned itself out. With her feathered hair and too-thin body, Lohan looks like a coked-out ’70s pornstar. (I’ll be honest – I have no idea what coked-out ’70s pornstars actually looked like, but Lohan’s MACHETE look would have been totally at home as an extra in Boogie Nights and 99% of my knowledge of late 1970s porn comes from Boogie Nights. Well, okay, maybe 95%.)

Her appearance here does feel slightly exploitative, and I don’t mean because they show off her boobs. The real world Lohan has the image of a trainwreck and her inclusion here seems as much an attempt to capitalize on that public fascination as it does because she was somehow the right actress for this character. April Booth is the daughter of Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), and she’s a spoiled little rich girl running a porn website where she uploads pictures and videos of herself. She ends up having a threesome with Machete and her mom in a pool, and Machete steals the tape to torment her dad because Daddy has impure thoughts about her, and not because he’d be turned off by seeing his little girl and mom do it with Machete.

It feels like stunt casting as much as DeNiro’s inclusion, and while that’s not either unusual or horrible, there is an uneasiness to seeing Lohan on screen when she looks like a total mess and she’s playing a character who’s also a total mess. I kept thinking, “Shouldn’t she off somewhere getting herself together?” (Good lord, I’m old.) She looks used and tired in a way that didn’t look like it had anything to do with make-up or acting.

Danny Trejo plays Machete, a Mexican Federal agent who was betrayed by his superior officer and saw his wife killed by Steven Seagal, who’s apparently been on the Val Kilmer diet. Machete has a penchant for rescuing hot young women, but the first one in the film he tries to rescue (played by Mayra Leal) betrays him, stabbing him in the leg and giving Seagal the upper hand. It’s completely awesome to see Trejo taking the lead in a film, but it would have been more awesome ten years ago because while he might not be fully committed to the Val Kilmer diet, he looks like he’s dabbled.

Since Trejo and Seagal are both past their primes it puts a weird vibe in play in MACHETE as the two main rivals simply can’t match the physicality required to inject the film with any real energy. It’s hard not to see the bodies Trejo and Seagal used to have; like or hate their acting, Trejo was always a guy who stop you with a stare and Seagal always had hands that moved fast. Here, they look like guys past their glory days still fighting because they don’t know how to do anything else. They struggling to pull off old moves around their expanded guts, and when they do their movements are anything but fast. It looks like bad guys have to stand in place so Machete can slice them. It looks like Seagal fights with his back pushed back so he can wave his sword around his bloated stomach. Even when Seagal’s character offs himself, he basically says, “Yeah, f*ck it, I don’t want to keep doing this. Someone tell Wendy Daddy’s coming for a visit to eat her crappy new fries.”

All of this sounds like I hated MACHETE and I didn’t. It’s still an enjoyable couple of hours in front of the TV, thanks largely to the work of Michelle Rodriguez and Jeff Fahey.

Let’s start with Fahey. The dude is flat out awesome here. Michael Booth starts out as this slick businessman who hires Machete to kill Senator McLaughlin (DeNiro), only so he can betray Machete and boost the Senator’s poll numbers. But then when he hears that his daughter is in trouble, he pulls a Machete from the opening scene, driving to the bad guys’ house, killing everyone, and rescuing the naked young lady. Except that he actually saves the girl instead of getting betrayed by her. It’s in this sequence that Fahey totally comes alive; he is, unquestionably, the biggest bad-ass in the film during this rampage, and it’s to Rodriguez (Robert’s) blame that he de-fangs Booth as the film unfolds, first introducing Booth’s lusting for his daughter and then showing him coming unhinged in a non-bad-ass manner whenever Seagal shows up on the video phone.

Why? Fahey can eat Seagal alive on screen. Use it.

Then there’s Michelle Rodriguez, who would probably be the biggest action star in the world if she was a dude. (Which, granted, these days really doesn’t amount to much where CGI and costumed characters are more important than the Action Star. This, by the way, is a good thing. So I guess I’m saying if Michelle Rodriguez were a dude she’d be Jason Statham, which she already is. Don’t you love it when a point completely disintegrates? I know I do.) Totally confident, totally in charge, she rules every scene she’s in, whether she’s standing there with Alba or Trejo. Machete is supposed to be the bad ass, yet it’s Rodriguez’s “Shé” that controls the action. Perhaps the film is simply too burdened with wanting to be the gag trailer come to life, but I wish Robert Rodriguez had given us Michelle Rodriguez vs. Jeff Fahey instead of Trejo vs. Seagal. That movie would’ve crackled with an energy sorely lacking in MACHETE.

And ultimately that’s why MACHETE is an enjoyable disappointment. Or disappointingly enjoyable. It set out to be a B-movie and that’s what it is, but as Rodriguez himself has shown us in the past with Planet Terror, you can do a genre flick with low expectations and still make a heck of an enjoyable movie.

MACHETE simply lacks that spark that we’ve come to expect from a Robert Rodriguez film.

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