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“Machete” trashy, hammy, overacted fun

Just because Machete don't text doesn't mean he's not good with his hands.

Robert Rodriguez likes making movies with equal parts explosive violence and hot babes and one-liners, which means he is doomed to spend his career being compared to Quentin Tarantino. Not such a bad fate, eh? There are worse people to be compared to, and to the untrained eye the comparison even seems kind of valid. But here’s the key difference: Tarantino likes to write insight in his worst characters. Rodriguez just wants them to have comically bad (like Nicholas-Cage-in-“Captain-Corelli’s-Mandolin” bad) accents. 

Is there a problem with that? Not for anyone willing to sit down, 86 the Tarantino snobbery, shut up and enjoy the ride. Rodriguez believes in the beauty of B movies, with their atrocious  (but so funny!) dialogue and their ill-written parts and their liters of blood and hacked-off body parts. He doesn’t take “Machete” seriously, and neither do the actors — which is why this fleshed-out film trailer is pure trashy fun, no brain engagement required. And the merriment begins with the opening credits, when Rodriguez — that cheeky bugger — includes the line “Introducing Don Johnson.” The casting is wild. Robert De Niro? Jeff Fahey, who seemed doomed to live his days as That Guy from Those Straight-to-VHS ’80s Movies? Mr. Miami Vice and Steven Seagal and Cheech in the same film? If there’s a Cinematic Cheesiness Scale, “Machete” has to be on the buxom end of it. And Lindsay Lohan crops up for good measure, a sure cause for some hoots because she’s playing a caricature of herself but looks too dumb (or drunk) to notice.

From this sea of tomfoolery emerges — “charges like a ticked-off Brava bull” might be a better phrase — Danny Trejo as Machete. On paper, this character actor, with that craggy face and lined skin that speaks to years of hard living and hard time, sounds like an odd choice for a revolutionary. Could a 66-year-old ex-con make a viable action hero? Claro que si, bruto! Watch him level goons with his thousand-yard stare and win a street fight without ever putting down his burrito. That sneer and hardness of character come in mighty handy in “Machete”; in fact, they are exactly what the original faux trailer promised and then some. As is customary with such a hero, there’s a dark past connected to some supremely shady criminals. Druglord Torrez (Seagal with an outrageously overdone Spanish accent), whom we recognize as terribly powerful because he calls everyone “puñeta” with a smirk, lops a few limbs of Machete’s family tree. Like all stories involving heroes, this is the unspeakable tragedy that makes the man. Years later Machete, an ex-federale, struggles to find enough money to scrape by. He gets the chance when Texas businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) offers him $150,000 to kill Sen. McLaughlin (De Niro), a complete waste of oxygen posing as a political candidate taking an unbelievably hard line against illegal immigrants. The job isn’t this simple, naturally, and Machete gets tangled up with slinky U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) and Luz/Shé (Michelle Rodriguez, looking refreshingly not drunk), the hardbody leader of an Underground Railroad-type operation to help Mexicans cross the border.

Down and down this rabbithole of a plot goes, eventually winding around to include a truly sadistic Border Patrol vigilante named Von (Johnson), who’ll shoot a pregnant immigrant without a second’s hesitation, and Machete’s brother Padre (Cheech Marin), a priest who always keeps a blunt, a flask and a semi-automatic weapon handy. (Time, you’ll discover, has not slowed Cheech’s comic timing: “I absolve you of all your sins. Now get the fuck out!”) It’s like a “Nash Bridges” reunion more nudity, some porn music and a kickass showdown involving tricked-out, hydraulics-happy cars, murderous rage and someone shouting a line that will put “remember the Alamo” six feet under: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” There are high highs and low lows — Lohan has the acting skills of a dead person; Fahey is like a less adept Eric Roberts — with Rodriguez’s shortcomings, like character development, on obvious display. He’s great at trailers and feature-length ham. With Trejo making like a true-blue action hero and De Niro doing his best Foghorn Leghorn impression, who cares? 

Grade: B+

My thought on today

Cameron blazes dramatic new trail in “Avatar”

One life ends and another begins when paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) agrees to infiltrate Na'vi culture in "Avatar."

Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~~”Hamlet” (Act 1, Scene 5)

Before James Cameron’s gorgeous, vividly imagined “Avatar” absorbed me into it completely, Horatio and Hamlet’s exchange ran on loop throughout my mind. Though it’s doubtful Cameron based four years of hard work around a few lines in “Hamlet,” he nonetheless gives dazzling life to these words in “Avatar.” The director has implored us, just as Hamlet implored Horatio, to open our minds to the infinite possibilities of the universe, things our brains tells us are illogical or improbable. He wants us to believe big and dream bigger, and by the time “Avatar” comes to a close — 160 minutes never seemed to so quick — he’s made starry-eyed believers out of the lot of us, skeptics, optimists and everyone in-between. This is a film that will change the way you see your world, and one that redefines “possibility.”

“Avatar” begins, however, with a very human and somewhat familiar story. The year is 2145, and humankind has set up camp on the planet Pandora intent on harvesting unobtanium, an invaluable mineral, initially through bartering and other peaceful measures. Corporate tycoon Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the rough-edged Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — both unfortunately written as one-note, stereotypical villains — would prefer to blast their way through the native inhabitants, a race of lean, tall, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi who refuse to relocate or give up their land. For awhile, though, Dr. Grace Augustine (a cheerfully mouthy Sigourney Weaver) has convinced Selfridge and the colonel to let her interact with the Na’vi using avatars controlled by humans. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine called to Pandora when his twin brother, trained for years to inhabit an avatar created specifically for him, suddenly dies. Initially indifferent to the task, he finds with each trip into the Na’vi world more to love about the culture, such as their intense, respectful connection to the land and to Eywa, their maternal deity manifested in all living organisms. He also takes to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who gets better with every part), the daughter of Na’vi’s leader who acts as his wary cultural attaché. She inherently mistrusts him. “Sky People cannot learn; you do not see,” she observes.

Though Neytiri is wrong about Sully, who finds his avatar life more fulfilling than his actual life, she is not wrong about many of Pandora’s human colonizers. Col. Quaritch, played with unkillable, Rambo-esque menace by Lang, views the Na’vi not as native inhabitants but as hostile enemies in need of extermination. To Selfridge (gripe alert: Ribisi deserves a deeper part than this), they are a nuisance in need of removal and the “how” doesn’t matter. And so “Avatar” becomes a film about the battle between humans consumed by Manifest Destiny-styled entitlement and the land’s native inhabitants. Cameron has an agenda and sways our sympathies accordingly, with our internal conflict manifested in the person and avatar of Jake Sully. And while Cameron pushes his agenda hard, he softens the message somewhat with the love story of Jake and Neytiri. Neither story is especially revolutionary; the same is true of a few characters, ill-written and flat, and the ending, a little disappointing in its predictability. Still, the interwoven stories ground this awe-inspiring, fluorescent world of make-believe — in a good way.

Besides, Cameron’s smart enough to know that visuals excuse a multitude of plot/writing sins. So much has been said about the visuals in Cameron’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar labor of love that to say more seems unnecessary. However, “Avatar” is above all else a visual experience, and one engineered painstakingly to retain traces of our human world and expand it simultaneously. What Cameron achieves in the film is the successful marriage of computer-generated imagery (awe-inspiring to say the least) and real people. Never before have reality and fantasy meshed so beautifully, and never before has such a union seemed so astonishingly real. One scene stands out in a handful of others: a moment between Neytiri and Sully, visible to her in human form for the first time. There is tenderness in her face, the likes of which we’ve never seen in a CGI character, and there is fascination in Sully’s. He sees for the first time what he believed to be impossible, and he is changed. So are we.

Grade: A-