Movies are technology. Insofar as movies often push innovation in technology, that much is obvious. When James Cameron developed new equipment and methods for films like "The Abyss" and the visually groundbreaking "Avatar," he was advancing the state of technology in our society.
Less obvious, however, are the ways the technology of movies affects our popular culture. Much as the depiction of smoking in movies as "cool" has more influence over whether teens adopt the habit than do any number of cartoon camels puffing away in magazine advertisements, the attitudes and opinions conveyed in movies do more to shape public sentiment than any number of commentators and editorials possibly could.
When a movie taps roiling public sentiment even as it seeks to shape that opinion, it will doubtless be noticed. A film that, judging from the nearly empty theater in which I saw it during its opening weekend, might have disappeared quickly has instead gotten a great deal of public attention. Robert Rodriguez, the talented director who "chopped, shot, and scored" such excellent action films as "El Mariachi" and "Desperado," has with "Machete" attempted to give his fans a gift. The film has its roots in a "fake" trailer shown during the "Grindhouse" double feature in which Rodriguez' "Planet Terror" was shown with Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof." The intent was to create an experience evocative of 1970s B-movie fare, and Rodriguez' contribution to that effort was as much homage as it was parody of the cheaply made horror movie genre.
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This is relevant because Rodriguez' "Machete" is a similar attempt. Just as the 70s gave us "blacksploitation" movies like "Shaft" and "Cleopatra Jones," Rodriguez' "Machete" is a "Mexploitation" movie that trades in fascination with stereotypical Mexican culture and the debate over illegal immigration. It is Rodriguez' treatment of the latter that has gotten him so much bad press. Various commentators have denounced "Machete" as racist. It does indeed depict characters knowingly engaging in a race war with their hated oppressors – the hated oppressors, in this case, being corrupt politicians and vigilante paramilitary gunmen who just happen to be fighting the incursion of illegal aliens crossing the Mexican border into the United States. Revolutionary rhetoric and imagery abound, with all roads to revolution leading to the same left-wing outcome of an open border.
What every critic of this movie is missing, however, is that it is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. It's very hard to become exercised over the movie's "race war" theme when everything about "Machete" is so absurd. It's not that I take lightly the threat offered by La Raza and its ilk; I have spoken out before regarding popular entertainment that foments racial hatred against "Anglo" whites (the presumed objects of Rodriguez' ire). Rather, "Machete" is so obviously a badly executed attempt to create a 1970s B-movie that I can't see anyone taking at face value any sentiment expressed in it. In this it is similar to the Clive Owen actioner "Shoot 'Em Up," a movie so preposterous, so gratuitously violent, that it is impossible for a conservative to be offended by its incongruous gun-control message.
The only thing more abundant in "Machete" than naked women (Michelle Rodriguez appears, for example, in a costume that is little more than hip-huggers, a bra, and shoulder holsters, a costume wasted on an audience whose members can only yawn as the movie's tediously dull climax flails about around her) is bad acting. The actors aren't merely overdoing it for the sake of satire; they're genuinely terrible. Danny Trejo, who excels as a henchman and heavy, does not have the acting chops to carry a lead role, nor is his screen presence up to the task. Steven Seagal, playing a villain, flounces around in a Nehru circus tent looking like nothing so much as a patio umbrella with the cover still on; his clothing, tailored to hide his gut, is so overlarge that he's one oversized vinyl basset hound head away from being a football team mascot. Robert De Niro, slumming and attempting another awkward comedic role, lapses into his trademark New York gangster accent, ditching the cornpone, cowboy-hat-wearing conservative he plays with all the glee of any liberal showing who he thinks Republicans are supposed to be.
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Jessica Alba, for her part, is wooden, and when she's forced to kiss Danny Trejo (not once, but repeatedly), the audience recoils in horror as the delicate waves of her lips crash against the rocky shoreline that is Danny Trejo's pocked horror of a face. The two don't share a romantic moment so much as they press their faces together reluctantly. Lindsey Lohan, using a body double for the most revealing of her nude scenes, plays the drug-addled daughter (a bit too close to the mark, that) of Jeff Fahey's villain (whom Fahey plays with all the subtlety of Snidely Whiplash). Arguably the best straight performance is turned in by Michelle Rodriguez – and that's a sentence you'll see used in very few movie reviews.
The movie is not without its bright spots, and even funny moments, such as Cheech Marin playing a gun-toting priest, the ever-fun Tom Savini (woefully underused) as an assassin, and a hammy Don Johnson proving he can out-act all the rest of them as the scene-chewing leader of the border vigilantes. These touches do not compensate for the film's plodding pacing, its plot holes (deliberate or otherwise), or the fact that, ultimately, it just isn't a lot of fun to watch.
"Machete" is a ludicrous, tasteless movie, yes. It is self-parody writ so large that it circles back around to arrive simply at poor filmmaking. To see in this movie a call to murder Anglos is not unreasonable, given that this is explicitly depicted. To take that call seriously, however, is to grant "Machete" a credibility it does not deserve, either as entertainment or as polemic. It fails miserably at both, leaving the viewer with no urge more political or ideological than simply to demand a refund of the price of admission.