From shared experiences at Sundance to capturing their camaraderie through cinema via Four Rooms, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City, Grindhouse and beyond, the careers and tastes of unabashed movie geeks turned independent filmmaking pioneers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are undeniably intertwined.
Therefore, it's only fitting that – just like other colleagues or close friends who bond over one thing only to realize they have much more in common – the two filmmakers both share similar creative triggers that spark enough ideas to comprise if not a series of movies than at least one jam-packed epic.
Intriguingly, although both are walking, talking film encyclopedias that specialize in exploitation, trash and B-movies whose obsessive love for their craft fills every single frame with enough endless obscure referential minutiae to send any film fanboy into a frenzy, their most effective and humanistic sources of surefire creativity are usually found on the film set rather than in their DVD collection.
As opposed to dreaming up characters in their heads to bring to life in a short story, because the two visual thinkers are screenwriters, it's inevitable that they'd have more in common with painters rather than novelists. Thus just like the fact that centuries of exquisite portraiture have proven that there’s no use replacing the right human subject for the Renaissance and Impressionist painters and beyond, the individuals in the duo's orbit have ultimately the biggest inspiration to these two filmmaking independents as well.
And in the case of Quentin Tarantino, his muse Uma Thurman is almost as universally known as the movies he's made, having evolved from an effective supporting player in Pulp Fiction to his leading lady and partner in cult movie crime as witnessed in the Grindhouse filmmaker's own masterful two-part genre-blending B-movie mix-tape that was Kill Bill.
Yet even though, just like Tarantino, the loyal-to-a-fault Rodriguez loves working with so many of the same cast and crew members from one movie to the next, his muse isn’t one of his recurring A-list stars including Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas or Carla Gugino and therefore much tougher to identify from among the lineup of his impressive ensembles.
And despite the fact that the terrific character actor Danny Trejo has a familiar face you’d recognize in an instant, Rodriguez’s muse whom he first encountered around the same time Tarantino met Thurman, in the early '90s on the set of Desperado has never been given the chance to carry an entire picture… until now.
Instead of Thurman's “Bride,” the acquaintanceship sparked Rodriguez’s idea to create in Trejo an entirely new character called “Machete” as the Mexican answer to Jean-Claude Van Damme, Charles Bronson or Chow Yun-Fat. In Rodriguez's mind, Machete would appear in a series of ridiculous guilty pleasure testosterone fueled popcorn pictures movies, which had more in common with the girls, gore and graphic nature of ‘70s Blaxploitation flicks than traditional mainstream action movies.
However, reality and limitations got in the way as the idea was more or less left on the back-burner for the better part of fifteen years because of Rodriguez’s hectic schedule and technically elaborate series of films from the Spy Kids franchise to Sin City that had usurped his time.
But in a particularly brilliant example of the way that sometimes things just fall into place, Rodriguez found himself in the midst of having precisely the right idea at precisely the right time – for those that got the joke that is -- given the increasing controversy and political concern about illegal immigration from Mexico in a post-9/11 world.
While I can’t argue for sure whether or not this new layer of subtext had been there before, suddenly Rodriguez’s idea for an escapist work of gratuitously ridiculous Mexploitation for the sheer sake of entertainment turned into the stuff of a rather ingeniously comedic political satire where our need to laugh at a world gone mad undoubtedly helped soften this film’s at time sickeningly exaggerated shots of ultraviolent carnage.
Expanding on the intentionally grainy, over-the-top trailer he’d shot a few years earlier for the then nonexistent movie to insert into the double-feature length running time of his Tarantino collaboration of Grindhouse, Rodriguez’s alternately crazy and clever Machete pushes stereotypes and clichés to the limit from its Charles Bronson style jaw-dropping opener.
After drug lord Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal in full-camp mode) brutally slays the loved ones of Trejo’s double-crossed gung-ho Mexico Federale right before his eyes, our bitter antihero known only as Machete illegally crosses the border into the U.S. where he maintains a down-and-out low profile until he’s given the dubious opportunity to embark on a path for revenge.
Soon embroiled in a political conspiracy involving an ultra-right wing, anti-immigration senator (Robert De Niro as a thinly disguised exaggerated composite of real public figures) along with vigilantes and freedom fighters on both sides of the border and people on both sides of the law, Machete must navigate through the vendettas, beguiling women and endless misinformation to ensure he’ll be one of the last Mexicans left standing.
One of those films that ultimately you want to like more than you actually do since subtlety isn’t Rodriguez’s strong suit and he’s in a constant tug-of-war with himself regarding when to show and when to tell, Machete is nonetheless a work of a completely singular vision that no one can claim they’ve ever seen before.
And although it’s fast-paced and furiously filmed with passion and humor that pours out of every frame, Rodriguez’s creativity is at times his own worst enemy as he never quite manages to engage us into empathizing with his one-dimensional zany caricatures.
Incredibly uneven in tone, Machete moves uneasily between dialogue that sounds like idealized soundbytes for a Daily Show watching crowd and enough blood and guts to rival any given slasher movie, which undoubtedly added to the confused reaction among divided audience members unsure whether or not Rodriguez wanted to preach or put on one outrageous show.
Yet even though you can’t help wishing it was executed in a smoother way by giving us the chance to laugh with Machete or go along for the ride rather than push us away from the intentional satirical freak show that it becomes, there’s still more than enough there to rave about in a movie in which you’re sure never to find yourself bored.
Since the visual presentation is styled in such a way to make the film look retro, you’re not going to notice a big difference in the picture clarity from standard and high definition aside from being impressed by a terrific Blu-ray soundtrack.
Likewise, although it does lack the trademark over-abundance of Robert Rodriguez bonus feature material, Machete’s Fox combo pack does boast a digital copy of the movie and even though I’m unsure that you’ll ever be able to it watch in public without being arrested for public indecency, on the plus side you may find yourself a muse if an interesting character passes by and likes what they see.
Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.