Action-packed Machete lacks cohesive storyline

It is somewhat jarring to see the modern world invade Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, as steeped as it is in the conventions of ‘70s exploitation cinema.

This, of course, is to be expected, as the original appearance of Danny Trejo’s vigilante was in a faux-trailer attached to the beginning of the Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature Grindhouse.

It was the perfect appetizer to the film, a pitch-perfect trailer, largely due to our imagination filling in the gaps between outlandish scenes.

With the feature-length Machete being dropped into the burial ground of Labor Day weekend, one is skeptical from the very beginning if Rodriguez can fill in the trailer’s gaps and create an enjoyable flick.

This skepticism is rewarded by the final result, as ultimately Rodriguez essentially creates a feature-length trailer, cramming it with scenes that are meant to match the insanity of the original trailer. Rather than being exhilarating, it is merely fatiguing.

Even in the most ridiculous action movies, there is often some down time. Movies such as Shoot ‘Em Up that attempt a relentless pace usually fail because the audience has no opportunity to anticipate what is about to happen. Without anticipation, there is no satisfaction.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the plethora of action scenes where Machete cuts through peon henchmen with an assortment of blades. Much like the violence in last year’s Ninja Assassin, the blades cut too quickly, severing limbs and body parts before the viewer is even aware of what has happened.

In the right hands, this technique can increase the impact of the violence, but in this case it has the opposite effect.

Furthermore, Rodriguez seems to be enamored with the filmic cut, which consists of moving the camera’s gaze from one subject to the next as quickly as possible. This was apparent from his first feature (El Mariachi), but at the time Rodriguez was limited by the quantity of his footage and the editing methods available to him. With digital cameras and computers, there is no longer either limitation, and the resulting product suffers. Hardly a single moment in the film registers in the mind’s eye before a cut.

Thankfully, some of the actors play their parts with a slow burn that is more fitting with the material. Of particular highlight is Jeff Fahey, the villain of the original trailer, who hisses his lines with angry malice while retaining his cool.

It is too bad that his performance is overwhelmed by the sheer number of actors in this short tale, as Rodriguez has become enamored with the idea of casting famous actors in even the smallest of parts. As such, there are no fewer than three main villains, as well as four heroes, all of whom are given equal screen time.

This approach is clearly influenced by Tarantino, but where Tarantino succeeds is through making his characters memorable with subtle gestures, not large sweeping ones. Tarantino’s directorial hand disappears at these crucial moments, while Rodriguez has no such restraint.

In fact, this film has no restraint at all, which would be fine if there were only a small handful of characters to keep track of, rather than two fistfuls.

The saving grace of the film is the brief moments that effectively satirize the ludicrous rhetoric that has surrounded recent political battles over illegal immigration. The overblown campaign ads within the film for Robert DeNiro’s Texas State Senator would have seemed ridiculous only a few years ago, but no longer. This uncomfortable friction with reality is where a lot of the power of these films lies, but Machete is content to use it as window dressing for the carnage instead of integrating it into the narrative.

It is a wasted opportunity, for one can have an awesome action movie with a social message. Even if one disagrees with the politics, it makes for a more visceral and entertaining film. It grounds the outlandish action in a more fully realized reality, which makes the action all the more exciting.

Perhaps it is the digital camera that helps to undermine this. The camera’s artificiality is highlighted not by the images they capture, but in the gritty flourishes that Rodriguez applies such as faux film scratches. These tricks work about as well as the distressed clothing items one might buy at the mall.

Sadly, Machete suffers the same fate. While this movie might make for a diverting afternoon on cable, there is little to recommend that can’t be found in more entertaining and authentic forms elsewhere. It is a pale facsimile of the promise evoked by the original trailer featured in Grindhouse. In fact, I’d recommend merely watching that trailer again and calling it a day.