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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+

Review: “The Killing Room” (2009)

(The movie recommendation came courtesy of Marc from G-C-T, who dubbed “The Killing Room” an offbeat gem in this post.)

“The Killing Room” is an instructional film in the sense that it has a lesson to teach us: There’s something about a locked room with white walls that all the special effects and torture implements in the world can’t touch. Mark this down as a makeover of the extremest type for director Jonathan Liebesman, who in the dreadful “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” saw subtlety in half with a chainsaw, then made his actors to roll around in its drippins. Apparently he learned his lesson because “The Killing Room” is an exercise in restraint — the psychological, relentlessly tense kind that squeezes the air right out of your lungs and frays the nerves. Prepare to be shaken, and hard.

With nary a sound, the film opens with a series of notes about highly classified, secretive experiments sanctioned by the U.S. government designed to determine the breaking point of the human mind. Most believe the program was shut down, but the eerie Dr. Phillips (Peter Stormare) knows better. Hardened by years of experience, he offers Ms. Reilly (Chloë Sevigny), the young military psychologist determined to join his team, the chance to bail out when she’s barely set foot in the facility — not a promising sign. Yet even Reilly, described as “ruthless” by her superiors, can’t hide her horror at what she sees happen to the experiment participants: Kerry (Clea DuVall), Paul (Nick Cannon), Crawford (Timothy Hutton) and Tony (Shea Wigham). Lured in by the promise of a $250 payout, they expect to kill a few hours bubbling in dots with No. 2 pencils, maybe studying a few Rorschach prints or talking about their feelings. Dr. Phillips’ sudden point-blank execution of one of the participants puts a bullet in their misconceptions.

The lump sum of what mind-warping, psyche-shattering things that happen to Kerry, Paul, Crawford and Tony is best left for viewers to discover, for even though Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock’s taut, measured screenplay doesn’t reinvent the lightbulb it still contains a few surprises (including a monumentally disturbing, sock-you-in-the-stomach conclusion). Or perhaps it’s more on point to say that the writers use the script to lay a series of traps for the viewers to fall into. Every time. Consider this: The remaining candidates, now quivering with shock, are instructed to give numerical answers to a series of questions, and those numbers determine who will die second, then third. Random selection, however, doesn’t appear to suit Dr. Phillips’ personality, but he keeps his motives hidden until the end — a device that, again, isn’t terribly original but is terribly effective … especially because it’s Peter “Grimsrud” Stormare, who, like Jackie Earle Haley, possesses the unique ability to conjure skin-crawling menace without uttering a syllable.

Almost without exception, the rest of the actors deliver strong turns meant not to show great depth of character (“The Killing Room” isn’t that kind of film) but to enhance the atmosphere of unrelenting constriction Liebesman sets up. They fall neatly into types, not personalities, which makes “The Killing Room” all the more impersonal and frightening. Within the first five minutes, Hutton establishes Crawford as the alpha male of the bunch, a survivalist capable of nimble thinking and even quicker footwork who hides protective instincts. Wigham immediately identifies Tony as the conspiracy theorist prone to losing his cool in high-stress situations, while Cannon — a likable enough actor if not a great or even particularly good one — adapts well to Paul’s role as the taciturn mysterious loner/wild card, the character so shifty that everyone implicity mistrusts him.

Equally enigmatic, though, is Sevigny’s Ms. Reilly. Never a showy actress, Sevigny lets the character seem remote and aloof in her words, but the eyes and mouth reveal her inner struggle. She seems at most points like one of the participants: unhinged and scared, searching for any exit strategy. In another way, though, Reilly functions as a stand-in for viewers themselves. For much of the film, she knows little more than we do. Presented from her limited, uninformed onlooker perspective, “The Killing Room” becomes even more disconcerting. She can’t escape the maze she’s in, and so there’s no hope for us, either.

Grade: B+