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September 24, 2010

Movie Review: Machete (2010)

by Corby Kennard

If you were lucky enough to see the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez nostalgia vehicle "Grindhouse" in the theater, you saw a number of fake trailers for films like "Werewolf Women of the SS" and "Thanksgiving". One of those trailers, featuring a flying motorcycle sporting a gatling gun and the tagline "They just fucked with the wrong Mexican", received such an incredible response from the fans that Rodriguez decided to make it a feature film.

Buy Machete on Blu-ray or DVD

And what was that trailer? (Well, it's not really much of a surprise since you know what this review is for and decided to read it and … *big breath*.) Yes, that's right. It was "Machete". You're very smart. Anyhoo …

"Machete" features Danny Trejo in his first starring performance as the title character who has an affinity for the blade that is his namesake. As the film opens, he and his partner - both Federales - are getting ready to raid a Mexican stronghold of a drug lord, Torrez, played with a bad accent and worse tan by the bloated and squinty Steven Seagal. The raid goes bad and Machete is captured, his partner is killed, and he watches as Torrez and the Police Chief murder his wife. Then they try to burn him alive, but he manages to escape.

Three years pass, and Machete is now a day laborer in LA, hanging out in front of a taco stand run by Luz - Michelle Rodriguez - who may or may not be the leader of an underground railroad made up of illegal Mexican immigrants and local sympathizers. Machete's scarred face and heavy tattoos make it difficult for him to get work, but Luz takes pity on him and feeds him even though he has no money. He takes a walk and gets roped in to a street fight where he doesn't bother throwing a punch and lets the guy beat himself up, all while eating his free burrito. He makes some cash off the betting crowd to pay back Luz, but more importantly, he comes to the attention of political maneuverer Booth, played by "Lawnmower Man's" Jeff Fahey.

Booth hires Machete to assassinate incumbent Senator McLaughlin, played with perfect timing by Robert DeNiro. The Senator is running on a platform that demonizes immigrants and advocates building a giant electronic wall between America and Mexico. (Earlier in the film, McLaughlin is seen with Don Johnson - yes, THAT Don Johnson - patrolling the border and keeping America "safe" for Americans.)

Machete is given a high-powered rifle, put on a rooftop, and told to shoot the Senator during a televised speech. But before he can, he sees another man on the ground with a similar gun. The man shoots the Senator in the leg, then fires at Machete. Now everyone's attention is on the large tattooed Mexican on the roof, running away from the attempted assassination holding a large gun. At this point "Machete" turns into a revenge flick, as Machete tracks down and takes care of the people who set him up.

The film has some great performances and an inspired cast. Jessica Alba plays an Immigration agent trying to shut down the underground railroad - or is she? Cheech Marin - yes, THAT Cheech Marin - is Machete's brother-turned-priest who interprets doing God's work in interesting ways. Lindsay Lohan - Yes, OK? Stop interrupting! - is Booth's nasty and naked drugged-up daughter with a habit. And Danny's own son, Gilbert Trejo, plays a young artist connected to Luz and the coming Mexican Revolution.

In many ways, this is a typical Grindhouse film. Gunfire and blood spray across the screen with gleeful abandon, although when nothing is happening, the pacing is a bit slow. The characters chew scenery like they haven't been fed in a week. There's yards of luscious female flesh on display. And there's a flying motorcycle - kind of.

But the best part of this film is the way it tackles a politically tough subject - illegal immigrants - and puts a human face on it. Sure, there may not be a bunch of Mexican Ex-Federales running around LA fighting for immigration rights by killing Senators, but that doesn't mean these immigrants are criminals just waiting to kill or steal. The film shows how they just want a better life for themselves and their families, and it allows us to see them as real people rather than soundbites on the Evening News.

Co-Directors Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez manage to strike a fair balance between being preachy and being exploitative, and as a result, "Machete" appeals to our love of action flicks while forcing us to question our humanity, if just a little.

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