The idea of the “exploitation” film has been making a resurgence in our culture of late. Wikipedia defines such a film as relying “heavily on sensationalist advertising and broad and lurid overstatement of the issues depicted, regardless of the intrinsic quality of the film”. Machete, the latest film from writer/director Robert Rodriguez, is a solid entry into the exploitation genre by being loud, trashy, gory… and just excitingly entertaining.
Machete was borne of Grindhouse, a double feature film directed by Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino in 2007, which was a love letter to the seedy underbelly of Hollywood that existed in the 1970s. A “grindhouse” movie was made by studios who would “grind” out cheap movie after cheap movie just to make a quick dollar, and these movies were often the types of exploitation films defined above. These movies wouldn’t be playing in your local family theater, alongside The Godfather or Jaws; instead, they were often played in unkempt theaters, where your shoes would stick to the unmopped floor, with cigarette smoke clinging to your clothes. The films were usually physically damaged; scratched prints, bad audio and missing footage were common, leaving you to wonder what you may have missed.
It was a sleazy business turning out sleazy films – often choosing to focus on graphic violence and titillating sex – and Rodriguez and Tarantino evoked that feeling through Grindhouse. Not only did they make their films dirty (in both content and presentation), they inserted a “Missing Reel” title card at one point in each of their films and propelled the audience two scenes ahead of where they were supposed to be. It was a part of Grindhouse’s charm, and adding to that charm were trailers for non-existent films that Rodriguez and directors Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth put together to further emulate the grindhouse experience.
Rodriguez’s trailer, Machete, played at the very beginning of Grindhouse. In interviews, he called it a “Mexploitation” movie about an illegal immigrant nicknamed Machete (Danny Trejo), who is hired to assassinate a US Senator, only to be shot and double-crossed by the people who hired him. However, he’s not about to take it lying down – being a former Federale, he takes matters into his own hands and seeks bloody revenge on the people who set him up.
If Grindhouse was a two-entree meal, Machete was the perfect appetizer – it advertised a film that promised us sex, blood and violence, with just enough of a goofy wit to make us laugh at its chintzy stereotypes. From the narrator’s overly-dramatic vocal tone (ranging from mellifluous to downright angry), to the pithy one-liners delivered by Trejo and Cheech Marin, to the gratuitous nudity, explosions and gunfire, the trailer for Machete was a poem of unapologetic, raging testosterone.
These two-and-a-half minutes of rampant manhood have been fleshed out and given a new 105-minute life, delivering on the trailer’s promise nonstop action, humor and insane violence. Without straying too far from what the trailer establishes, Rodriguez and Trejo once again march into our eyeballs with a kind of gleeful sickness, simultaneously giving us a product the fans wanted and letting us know that they had fun doing it. Virtually nothing is left sacred in this movie, as everything is sensationalized to the point of buffoonery and satire; stereotypes and clichés help to skewer our notions of morality, justice, lust and greed.
Along with this new life comes a diverse cast, the likes of which I never thought I’d find in one movie. On one hand, Robert DeNiro revels in his role as Senator John McLaughlin, a hardline conservative dead-set on keeping illegal immigrants out of Texas; on the other, we have a seething, snarling Steven Seagal as Torrez, a Mexican drug kingpin using McLaughlin to unknowingly inflate his drug trade’s profits. And in typical exploitation fashion, the women are curvaceous and beautiful, with Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba leading the way. Granted, there’s not much of a screenplay; but given the type of movie Machete is, does it really need one?
Director Robert Rodriguez has done a thoroughly capable job of fully realizing Machete; every choice he’s made is meant as a playful wink and a nod to grindhouse staples. We see the outlandish, physically-impossible violence; we hear the porno-style wah-wah guitar during sex scenes; we experience explosions, gunfights, dismemberments and beatdowns, all for the superfluous nature of the film. However, the only problem I have with Machete is purely Robert Rodriguez’s fault; as he has continued shooting digitally, there are certain scenes where movement seems to stutter. I didn’t find it to be a part of the “damaged print” humor; I found it to be more an annoyance and distraction. But in contrast with the rest of the movie, I could easily overlook that small quibble and enjoy it as a whole.
Machete is a feature-length expansion of a trailer put together out of sheer love for trash cinema. It’s very hard not to enjoy the merrily twisted efforts of the cast and crew, and it’s a lot of fun to see films that let the good times roll. All too often, we are given heavy, bloated films that are so desperately trying for blockbuster status or Academy Awards glory; if you want to take a break from all of that, Machete is the palate cleanser we’ve needed. It’s a film that takes itself seriously, and “itself” just happens to be a cocky swagger, a sly grin, and a bloody knife.
FINAL GRADE: A