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Venice 2010. Robert Rodriguez's "Machete"

Yes, Robert Rodriguez's Machete opens Stateside on Friday, but its first public screening is tonight in Venice, a Midnight opener, Out of Competition, and the first yeas and nays are in.

A yea: "Machete turns out to be the return to form that Rodriguez fans have been waiting for," blogs Anne Thompson. "It's profane, political, hilarious, sexy, packed with masterfully choreographed action and hugely entertaining. It's a straight line from Desperado (when [Danny] Trejo's character was born) through Sin City and Planet Terror to Machete, and comparisons to the likes of 60s Luis Buñuel at his most anti-establishment and Sergio Leone ([John Debney's] score is riddled with Morricone) and Sam Peckinpah westerns are not out of line."

A nay: "Robert Rodriguez loves exploitation cinema but his homages to the disreputable genre are defined by italicized self-consciousness that leaves his humor without any room to breathe," finds Nick Schager in Slant. "Rodriguez's films are so busy chuckling at their own supposed audacity that there's no need for viewers to join in the revelry, a situation that muted the gung-ho lunacy of his Planet Terror and stifles almost any pleasure to be had with Machete, an aimless Mexploitation snoozer based on the writer-director's phony Grindhouse trailer."

Another yea: "With his scuffed shoe-leather face and hostage-negotiation growl, Danny Trejo commands the screen with abrupt, almost hilarious ease," smiles Mark Asch in the L Magazine. "In his first full-scale starring role, this gangbanger-turned-drug-counselor-turned-boxing-coach-turned-bit-actor plays a Mexican federale turned migrant laborer and double-crossed soldier of fortune, and Robert Rodriguez plays everyone off him: Jessica Alba's terribly earnest immigration officer, Michelle Rodriguez's Mexican-American activist and Lindsay Lohan's addled rich bitch; Steven Seagal's bloated coke kingpin and Jeff Fahey's mulletted trafficker; Don Johnson's Minuteman and Robert DeNiro's Texas state senator, whose references to illegal-immigrant 'cucarachas' recall former exterminator Tom DeLay, and whose gladhandling of vigilante sentiment makes him the anti-Travis Bickle."

A qualified nay: "The trailer may be the ideal format for Rodriguez," suggests Karina Longworth in the Voice, "allowing him to play to his strengths (character conceptualization, one-liners, DIY ingenuity, quick cutting to hide frayed edges), and avoid the things he's less good at (character development, non-winking dialogue, action sequence clarity, extended plot).... But Rodriguez, whose films regularly show an indifference to linear logic once their action climaxes click into place, has trouble sustaining the kick and clarity of the asides. Because there's no real character drama or consistent critique grounding the spoof, when Machete isn't laugh-out-loud funny, it's deadly boring."

 



Similarly, a qualified yea: "Machete delivers the 70s-style B-movie goods with a relentless onslaught of over-the-top violence, extreme gore, gratuitous nudity and cheap laughs, with a healthy dose of up-to-the-minute political satire to sweeten the package. However," adds Frank Scheck in the Hollywood Reporter, "what was mightily entertaining in a three-minute trailer proves somewhat wearisome over the course of a feature."

Interviews with Danny Trejo: Marshall Fine, Nate Jones (Time), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York) and Steven Zeitchik (Los Angeles Times).

Update: Eric Hynes for Movieline: "A film this playful and brazenly inconsequential should at least inspire invention at the margins — a nifty action sequence here, or a nicely framed shot there — but Rodriguez, unlike his compulsively experimental compadre Tarantino, seems disinterested in anything but entertainment delivered fast, cheap (or in this case, the expensive simulation thereof) and out of control.... Rodriguez may have 1970s B-movie nasties on the mind, but the film that Machete most resembles is Tim Burton's ode to 1950s sci-fi cheapies, Mars Attacks! Marshaling big studio dollars to replicate movies shot on the cheap, both films ask the audience to enjoy from an ironic remove, laughing both at and with the silliness, evoking bad movies by making one. As intentional camp goes, Burton's is the bolder film, risking a fuzzier line of intentionality and looping its own critical drubbing into a full circle homage."

Updates, 9/2: Duncan Shepherd in the San Diego Reader: "Test case to help you decide whether this is the movie for you: the hero, having just heard that the human intestine stretches sixty feet, effectuates his escape from a hospital by slicing open the torso of a bad guy, diving out a window clutching the intestine like Tarzan a jungle vine, and swinging down to the window of the floor below. Yuk-yuk or just yuck?"

Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York: "Trejo brings both playfulness and gravitas to the archly juvenile proceedings, even as codirector-cowriter Rodriguez treats him like a cutaway sight gag — a go-to goose whenever things bog down."

The Austin Chronicle's Marjorie Baumgarten remarks that "De Niro does some of his best supporting work in years, and Lohan's appearance as a rich little druggie who schemes to increase her Web presence could not be more fortuitously timed."

Ray Pride in Newcity Film on Michelle Rodriguez: "Let's just say Robert Rodriguez appreciates her beauty, equipoise and simple screen charisma and takes pains to enshrine it." And Jenni Miller interviews her for Cinematical.

"Someone's bound to mistake this for a substantive political statement, and I suppose it does have more to say on that level than The Matrix," suggests Cliff Doerksen in Time Out Chicago.

"What the film utterly lacks is any emotional depth," argues Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. "The characters are strictly comic-book creations. Whatever happens to them — whether their family members are killed in front of them, their own limbs are lopped off or their eyes shot out — they don't seem remotely bothered. If they don't care, why should we?"

"Rodriguez's spoof-trailer promised fun, but now that the actual movie is here, he gives us idiocy," grumbles Armond White in the New York Press.

Marc Savlov talks with Rodriguez for the Austin Chronicle.

 

Photo by Fabrizio Maltese/EF Press/fabriziomaltese.com, Venice 2010.

 

While watching Machete, Bilge Ebiri reports for Vulture, a "strange, unfamiliar feeling came over us, as the film's portly drug-dealer villain Torrez lumbered onto the screen. At first we thought we were mistaken, but pretty soon it became undeniable: We were actually enjoying a Steven Seagal performance. And not just sort of enjoying it in an ironic way, but really enjoying it. Sporting a ridiculous Mexican accent, brandishing Japanese sabers, with half-naked (and in some cases, naked-naked) Asian women draped all over him, Seagal was not only funny, he was actually kind of self-deprecating. For once, he seemed to be in on the joke. And it wasn't long before we began to think 'comeback.' But this in turn led to some complicated soul-searching on our part. Because Steven Seagal, over the years, has not proven himself to be an easy guy to like."

"Although laughter is the appropriate response to this pulpy, lighthearted gorefest, its pro-Mexican, anti-American stance is so gleefully inflammatory that some incensed nativists may refuse to get the joke," notes Stephen Holden in the New York Times. "Reacting to the film’s leaked screenplay, the radio talk show firebrand Alex Jones posted a YouTube video in which he warned that Machete could foment a 'race war.' A comedy showdown with the Wayans brothers would seem more likely."

"It's often stylish and exciting, but the pile-up of cool kills, hot bodies, and other unprocessed bits of juvenilia doesn't add up to a good time," finds Scott Tobias at the AV Club.

Counters James Rocchi at MSN Movies: "Machete is gratuitously smutty, sadistically violent, politically aware and somehow also politically incorrect. Put more succinctly, it is awesome, and delivers every goofy gory guilty pleasure The Expendables was supposed to but did not."

Updates, 9/3: The Boston Globe's Ty Burr: "The movie's an unexpected end-of-summer tonic: a trash guilty pleasure with a healthy (if really violent) sense of outrage. It's also Rodriguez's freest movie yet, and possibly his best."

Mike D'Angelo, writing in the Las Vegas Weekly, disagrees: "Grindhouse has finally been announced for a DVD release; wait for that, and you can thoroughly enjoy Machete in less time than it takes to boil an egg."

"At 105 minutes, Machete is at least half an hour too long for its own good," writes the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips. "It would've worked better at that length as one-half of Grindhouse, certainly better than Rodriguez's own Planet Terror did."

"[I]t's lacking in his Desperado-era flair," adds William Goss in Cinematical. "Hell, even Shorts looked like more of a movie than this does."

The Oregonian's Shawn Levy seconds James Rocchi's point: "This is, in effect, the film that The Expendables wishes it were: raw, macho, funny, up-tempo and disposable in the best possible sense."

"Game is the salient term." Ruth Starkman explains at Bright Lights.

"Although the cartoon violence and overheated rhetoric are hardly subtle, Machete's political analysis rivals the mayhem for zing," blogs J Hoberman at the Voice.

Updates, 9/4: New York's David Edelstein: "The movie is ham-handed, repetitive, and rhythm-less — a mess that's uglier than its hero and nowhere near as likable."

"Trejo's always been a welcome presence wherever he turns up, that distinctively weathered and initially frightening face that masks a terrifically deadpan sense of humour," writes Josef Braun. "He's exactly the sort of perpetual background player film-lovers long to see promoted to the spotlight, yet thanks to largely half-assed conception, Trejo's star moment as Machete's eponymous ex-federale hero may just constitute the least interesting performance he's given."

At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri has "gone over Trejo's film career (Jesus, this guy has made a lot of movies) and come up with what we believe are Danny Trejo's eleven Baddest Badasses."

Update, 9/8: "It's awesome to see Danny Trejo finally get to carry a film for once and play a character that doesn't get killed off," writes JD at Edward Copeland on Film.

Coverage of the coverage: Venice 2010. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

Deleted
Yays from writers on the fringes, nays from the establishment. Shall we read into that? I’m excited to see the film. For me, there’s a straight line from Chaplin to Rodriguez. Calm down everyone! Not saying he’s better but to look closely and see everything that he brings to the table.
Mac
I don’t get it anymore. Rodriguez goes and makes what sounds to me like a true blue 70s-style grindhouse sleazefest (complete with anti-establishment politics [which, to me at least, might be the problem that a lot of critics have with the film even though they don’t want to say it for fear that they will out themselves as anti-immigrant]) the kind of film that has been championed over and over again, but some film writers don’t like it for these very qualities. It never changes, does it?

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