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Spout About: "Machete" -- Too Blunt or Just Dumb Fun?

By Christopher Campbell | Spout September 3, 2010 at 5:47AM

Spout About is a prompt for discussion of a movie you've already seen, in this case Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis' "Machete." The post and its comments may include spoilers. We encourage you to watch the movie and then come back and talk about it in full without tiptoeing around plot points or conclusions.
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Spout About is a prompt for discussion of a movie you've already seen, in this case Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis' "Machete." The post and its comments may include spoilers. We encourage you to watch the movie and then come back and talk about it in full without tiptoeing around plot points or conclusions.

A woman sitting near me in an over-packed (I was sitting on a staircase with other stragglers) late-evening screening of "Machete" yelled out at one point, "they're out of their minds!" I'm not sure if she meant the filmmakers or the characters on the screen, but either way she's right. Robert Rodriguez's "Grindhouse" spin-off, which is hard to call an adaptation of a 'fake' trailer since the idea was conceived as a feature in the first place, is not so much mindless action fare as it is half-minded, in a good way. The story and its players are so embedded in the immigration debate that the movie is clearly trying to contribute to the topic, yet it constantly leaps out of its figurative head, abandoning any brain activity it has for long periods, and asks its audience to do the same, for an over-the-top celebration of big guns, bigger knives and gigantic balls.

The plot is your basic exploitation film fodder, with an anti-hero ex-cop (specifically ex-Federales) set up in an assassination plot, the kind in which the conspirators are looking to boost their own cause by sacrificing its puppet leader and framing its enemy for it. Danny Trejo's titular outlaw is also eventually out for some vengeance -- the film's prologue somewhat establishes "Machete" as Rodriguez's "Kill Bill" with a tragic confrontation with a Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal) -- and still makes plenty of time for the ladies (Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, among them). He's the Mexican Shaft, I guess, though the movie really wants to be the Mexploitation equivalent of all Blaxploitation movies at once. There's also a play on the identity themes of spaghetti westerns, only now the man is all name and no country. But as smart as it could be, "Machete" wants to keep things fun and simple and for every bit of social or political commentary there are at least a hundred bits of cartoonish slaughter and things getting blowed up good.

Anyone who calls "Machete" dull or boring needs to get out to shows like the one I attended. The majority of the audience was indeed minorities, the people who best relate to a movie dealing with racism and xenophobia, and they definitely enjoyed every second. Regardless, though, no matter what your background or level of marginalization, you can easily get excited in a crowd like this. I hadn't seen so much cheering and clapping and justifiable shouting ("It's Cheech!" -- half the crowd, approvingly) during a movie in a long time. And the energy was infectious. I didn't always revel as much in the sex, drugs and violence as my fellow moviegoers did, but I reveled in their delight. I can't help it, I love to witness a film audience having a great time.

So it's wild, but is "Machete" constructive? It's certainly in-your-face enough with its political theme that you'll be surprised you don't leave the theater as scarred as Trejo. The immigration issue itself is so ridiculous right now, though, that it calls for a response this outrageous. For good or bad, the illegal alien thing has always been ripe for the bluntest kind of satire and the most blatant allegory. Look at the unsubtle gag at the center of "A Day Without a Mexican." And next month you can see the sci-fi indie "Monsters," which is less explicit than "Machete" but no less on-the-nose in its handling of the border topic. Here, the mix of overt irony and gratuitous bloodshed is definitely not going to change any minds or offer viable solutions (not productive ones anyway), but the laughter and revenge and vigilantism fantasy is therapeutic for times as void of reason as these (I'll forward the emails I get from conservative relatives if you want to see the worst of it).

I'm perfectly okay with the mix of serious issue and stupid action that Robert Rodriguez, his co-writer Alvaro Rodriguez and his co-director/editor Ethan Maniquis are going for. It's a part of that exploitation tradition. And I never understood why someone can't have their cake -- or in this case "his churros" -- and eat it too. Sure they can. And they have. I also don't believe anyone can honestly believe "Machete" is a modern day "Birth of a Nation," potentially encouraging a real-life underground network of armed illegals as D.W. Griffith's film inspired a return of the Ku Klux Klan. The movie is a release, not a stimulus. Then again, I find it a little too easy for Robert Rodriguez to say talking about the immigration issue puts him to sleep and act like his movie isn't a form of comedic protest.

Can we completely leave the politics out of it and merely enjoy "Machete" for its artistic merits and basic action fantasy, as some suggest? By the point of the absurd and anarchic climax, which pits Machete and the network of immigrants against a civilian border patrol at the latter's training headquarters, while too many characters converge and display confused or complicated motives and affiliation (what is up with Seagal's final moment? what is Lindsay Lohan's habit-garbed deal?), it is very easy to ignore the film's political ideas if not divorce your own beliefs from what you're watching. Anyway the film ends with a very politically charged ironic death, so we're left thinking about the border issue after all that ridiculous mayhem. But I for one can appreciate the blunt political themes and idiotic tone with equal measure. If that somehow makes me both a scholar and a moron, so be it.

Any thoughts on or questions about "Machete," drop a comment below.

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