Thursday, June 24, 2021

Reserved Seating Celebrates Danny Trejo on Free Space Day: MACHETE

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo who started as an ironic trailer.

Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: Our Junesploitation coverage continues with 2010’s Machete, the first full-length feature starring the long-running Danny Trejo character from Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids films and fake Grindhouse trailer. Directed by Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, the film begins when Mexican Federal Machete Cortez is double-crossed by bosses who are secretly in the employ of drug lord Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal), who in turn kills Machete’s wife and leaves his life in ruins. Years later, a despondent Machete is recruited by Texas businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate anti-immigrant State Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). Booth, too, betrays Machete, and the latter man plots his revenge with the help of underground revolutionary Luz (The Great Michelle Rodriguez), his brother, Padre (Cheech Marin, playing an actual priest), and ICE Agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba).
Robert Rodriguez is a director whom I’ve always respected but never quite vibed with the way I want to. His movies are undoubtedly cool, well-crafted, and reeking of exploitation charm, but some struggle to balance B-movie energy with mainstream appeal and end up failing to deliver for either audience. Machete flirts with that a bit, but it keeps its edge (pun 100% intended) long enough to be an overall success. Trejo has always been a great screen presence, a stark outlier in a sea of thugs and tough guys, but Machete builds a world around him that allows his silent avenger energy to really shine. He’s a man of action, not emotion, so Rodriguez and co-writer Alvaro Rodriguez craft other big personalities with whom he can tangle. Everyone gets to play to their strengths, with De Niro, Seagal, and Fahey going sleazy, Michelle Rodriguez going tough and sexy, and Alba adding the earnest emotional core.

Still, as I mentioned earlier, Machete might have been better off going a little more grindhouse. There’s violence and gore, but not TOO MUCH violence and gore; there’s unnecessary nudity, but not TOO MUCH unnecessary nudity, and so on. At the risk of sounding like an adolescent pig, I expected Rodriguez to lean a little harder into that stuff for this particular project. At 105 minutes, it’s also a bit too long. I know that’s a trite Film Twitter critique, but there are lots of bits that could go (the Lindsay Lohan subplot stands out), and I would have loved a dirtier, bloodier Machete that ran eighty-nine minutes.

Sorry, I’ve been rambling. Adam, What did you think of Machete?

Adam: Like most people who saw Grindhouse back in 2007, I really enjoyed all the fake trailers throughout the film, such as Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S., Edgar Wright’s Don’t, and Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving. Those played at the intermission between Planet Terror and Death Proof, but Planet Terror was preceded by the trailer for Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. When I learned an actual feature-length version was being made, I was pretty excited about it despite having similar concerns due to Rodriguez as director. I often want to like his movies more than I do despite him having a handful I enjoy like Desperado, From Dusk till Dawn, Sin City, and Alita: Battle Angel. I think Machete is a strong entry in the Rodriguez filmography. Could it be shorter? Yes, but on this viewing (my second and first since theaters) it didn’t bother me that much. I think the pacing of the film is good for the most part.
As much as I want to gravitate to the exploitation elements of Machete, what I enjoy most about the movie is watching the performances. It’s a tricky thing to act in a movie like this because you don’t want to delve too far into camp but also can’t take the proceedings too seriously and suck the fun out of the movie. I think some actors fare better here than others. Danny Trejo is used in just the right amounts. His iconography is more important in this film than his acting range, which Rodriguez and Trejo totally get and lean into. Michelle Rodriguez is terrific as always. She’s genre gold. I was surprised how much I liked Jessica Alba in this movie. At the time of Machete’s release, I dismissed Alba as an actor but she often brings a sincerity and gameness to genre parts and that should be commended. Jeff Fahey probably gives my favorite performance in the movie, expanding his gravelly-voiced creep from the Machete trailer into a character with a full, sleazy arc. The performances I liked less is where you can tell the actor is muggingly slumming (Robert De Niro), in rough shape (Lindsay Lohan, whose performance is sad considering how it mirror the rumors of her off-screen life at the time), or leaning into appropriation and stereotypes (Steven Seagal, who makes me so uncomfortable whenever he adopts voice affectations to approximate different cultures and races).

Did you get around to seeing Machete Kills? Machete could have been so much worse as evidenced by its sequel. Also, a fun fact, Machete was the 100th highest grossing film of 2010, making this review a backdoor Reserved Seating Hundo!

Rob: I haven’t seen Machete Kills, but I’ve read enough to know it commits the cardinal sin of killing off one of the original’s major characters in the opening. I’m all set. Two questions: Would you like to see any of the other Grindhouse trailers go full-length? Obviously, my vote is for Edgar Wright’s Don’t. Second, with the benefit of hindsight, do you think the Grindhouse experiment brought exploitation films back into the mainstream the way Tarantino and Rodriguez might have hoped? While I’m not sure independent cinema will take over again the way it did in the ‘90s, projects like Grindhouse (coupled, of course, with the rise of internet fan culture) did seem to help reinvigorate interest in those genres by codifying the aesthetic for a generation that may not have been familiar with it and activating the nostalgia felt by those who already were.

Adam: I don’t think I need to see any of the other Grindhouse trailers as features as much as I did in 2007, but obviously would see any of them if they were released. I remember the New Beverly Cinema dubbed a couple of double features as unofficial Grindhouse 2 & 3 and those movies included Machete, Machete Kills, Hell Ride and The Man with the Iron Fists.
To answer your second question (a great one, btw), I think the Grindhouse experiment worked like a charm but in ways Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez might not have expected. At the mainstream level, Grindhouse doesn’t seem to have left much of a footprint. I remember stories from when it was released that some people would leave after Planet Terror ended because they didn’t understand the concept. On the other hand, exploitation cinema has been very prevalent in DTV/VOD/Indie Horror, etc. over the years, and while many of these movies didn’t play in theaters or went only through the festival circuit, they have had a sizable cultural footprint among genre fans. There’s almost too much of it to keep track of but that was probably true of exploitation movies in the ‘70s as they went from town to town on the drive-in and Grindhouse circuits. Cinema is better for its resurgence in the 2000s and 2010s.

Anything else on Machete? I’m excited to meet Danny Trejo at the Monstermania Convention with you in August. I went to one of his restaurants (Trejo’s Tacos) when I was in California recently and the food was great.

Rob: Me, too. He seems like an awesome guy. An awesome guy who absolutely terrifies me.

Adam: We’ll be back next week talking baseball with a look back at The Sandlot. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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