I simply don’t get it. This film has absolutely none of the charisma and charm I was expecting after the delightful Grindhouse project. It’s like a joke that stops being funny long before the punchline is reached.
Why? Because Rodriguez decided that using this material was a perfect vehicle to attack the current battles the U.S. faces with immigration. Now, I am not criticizing his stance. In fact, I think that he is more than capable of making a competent film about that. It may even be an action film. But this character was not borne out of those feelings. He was borne out of Rodriguez’s love of B movies. By now, you can see the problem; Rodriguez wants nothing more than to be treated sincerely, but he cannot separate Machete from Grindhouse. I would have loved to see that version of Machete, in full exploitation glory. But Rodriguez took a much different direction that doesn’t work.
Why waste such strongly held feelings on a project that, for all intents and purposes, was meant to be a joke?
I am sure you know the plot by now. Machete (Danny Trejo) is a former Federale whose family was murdered by drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). Three years later, he is hired by a man named Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to kill the anti immigration senator John McLaughlin. It turns out to be a double cross and Machete finds himself caught up in a conspiracy to build an electric border fence. He is assisted by police officer Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) and seeks to clear his name and stop his old enemy Torrez from accomplishing his goals with the senator.
Now, for all the bad things I have said, I will compliment Rodriguez on the one item has been consistently successful with – his over the top action scenes. There is plenty of that here, and it is those scenes that are the most joyous to behold. Yes, some of it is downright offensive (such as when a priest is nailed to a cross, or the scenes of Mexican immigrants being hunted). But that is what the film was always meant to be in the first place. It was at these moments that it all felt like a spectacle that Rodriguez was trying to passionately create. I wanted to see more of those moments. I wanted to see day laborers kill with gardening implements. I wanted to see women dressed as nuns shooing people in cold blood. Those scenes are present in Machete, and are the moments the film is at its best. Offensive and childish? You bet, but that is the spirit that lead to Grindhouse.
However, unlike the much more enjoyable Desperado (which knew it was a B movie and fully embraced its spectacle) Machete feels a need to hold back. I guess because it felt that it had a message. And when this message pops up, the film stops dead in its tracks. Example: there is a scene in which Alba’s character tries to rally together day laborers. I forget most of the speech, but it involves a distinction between “the law” and “what is right.” It is at that moment that the film tries to be something terrible- it tries to be realistic. This is the last thing that the film needs. It takes the fun right out of it.
Again, the one thing I do not wish to do is say that Rodriguez did not have a point. In fact, I agree with (most of) what he has to say. But I just have a problem with the podium he has selected. Grindhouse and the material in it is, and always has been, a joke. The films that it was satirizing were hardly the sort of forum to contain any sort of serious message. Yes, I know there was subtext. Yes, those films are still considered (not incorrectly) to be art. But they never sacrificed their sense of fun to get to the point. Machete does, and does not replace that fun with anything worthwhile.
Robert Rodriguez is a great action director. In previous films, he even does manage to state a point about the ills of society. But he has taken all of the fun out of this film with his message. He has turned, not into the guy you can have a decent conversation over drinks with, but into a madman with a podium in the middle of town square, ranting and raving about what he thinks. Maybe he has a point. But it’s not a lot of fun listening to him get there.