Thursday, September 09, 2010

Culture Shock 09.09.10: Veteran tough guy shines in gorefest 'Machete'

After nearly 200 movie and TV appearances, Danny Trejo finally has top billing.

Sure, it's in a relatively low-budget movie that pays homage to other low-budget movies made four decades ago. But he's billed above two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro. That's not bad for someone who did prison time before falling, by accident, into a career playing movie tough guys.

And they don't come much tougher than Trejo in "Machete."

"Machete" originated as the fake movie trailer at the beginning of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's 2007 exploitation double-feature, "Grindhouse." The fake trailers ended up being the most popular part of "Grindhouse," so now Rodriguez has expanded "Machete" into a full-length film.

And it's a welcome change of pace after a lackluster summer movie season in which only "Inception" lived up to its hype. "Machete" is unapologetically ridiculous, fun, bloody and over-the-top — a throwback to trashy 1970s drive-in movies. If you can see "Machete" at one of the nation's few remaining drive-ins, do so. That's how it was meant to be seen.

Trejo plays the title character, an ex-Federale hiding out illegally in the United States after narrowly escaping a Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal) who — as it happens in this sort of movie — also killed Machete's family.

While working as a day laborer, Machete gets picked up by a mysterious man in a limousine. The man, played by the great Jeff Fahey ("Lost"), makes Machete an offer he can't refuse: a suitcase full of money in exchange for assassinating a Texas state senator (De Niro) whose anti-immigration platform is bad news both for illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them.

But nothing is what it seems, and the assassination attempt turns out to be a set-up intended to boost the senator's falling poll numbers. Machete winds up injured, on the run and in search of evidence that will not only clear his name but also reveal a vast conspiracy of politicians, drug lords and border-control vigilantes, who are in league to build an electrified wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Yes, I guess you could say this is a political movie, with Mexican immigrants as the good guys and border-control advocates as the bad guys. But like the many 1970s B-movies that also strived for social relevance, the message here is beside the point. The real point is delivering a lot of crowd-pleasing action and some gratuitous nudity. And "Machete" delivers both.

Trejo's Machete is a man of few words, which is probably a good thing. No one will ever mistake Trejo for a great actor, but he is an imposing screen presence, and one of his few lines seems already on its way to becoming a catchphrase: "Machete don't text."

Trejo also benefits from a great supporting cast, especially Fahey's wonderfully sleazy Booth, Cheech Marin's scene-stealing performance as Machete's brother/priest and Don Johnson as the racist leader of a vigilante group that is most definitely not modeled on the Minuteman Project. As for De Niro, "Machete" seems like the most fun he's had making a movie in years.

Jessica Alba co-stars as an immigration agent on Machete's trail, and Michelle Rodriguez provides the film's heart as Luz, who may be the leader of an underground resistance group.

Then there's Lindsay Lohan, who is also in this movie even though she barely has anything to do. Her character's big scene is actually reused footage from "Grindhouse," with a different actress playing the role.

But obvious body doubles and occasionally shoddy special effects are part of "Machete's" charm. Robert Rodriguez has set out to make a cheesy B-movie, and he has succeeded. If he ever makes good on the two sequels he promises at the end — "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again" — I won't complain.

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