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MACHETE (2010) (***)

I heard a story once about Melvin Van Peebles going to see his SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG on opening day with only one other person in the theater, a Black Panther. He went to a later showing and the house was full. That one Black Panther had come back and brought all this friends, who loved the film. I can see the same scenario playing out with this film, only replacing the Black Panther with an illegal immigrant.

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I heard a story once about Melvin Van Peebles going to see his SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG on opening day with only one other person in the theater, a Black Panther. He went to a later showing and the house was full. That one Black Panther had come back and brought all this friends, who loved the film. I can see the same scenario playing out with this film, only replacing the Black Panther with an illegal immigrant.

Machete (Danny Trejo, HEAT) was a Federale when his wife and daughter were killed by drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal, UNDER SIEGE). Left for dead, he managed to survive and make his way to the U.S. where he finds work as a day laborer. A businessman named Booth (Jeff Fahey, TV's LOST) makes him an offer of $150,000 to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro, HEAT), who is running on an extreme anti-illegal immigrant platform in Texas. What is unknown is that the politician is linked to a border vigilante group led by murderous cop Lt. Stillman (Don Johnson, TV's MIAMI VICE). But when dealing with corrupt men like these men nothing appears as it seems.

Meanwhile, immigration agent Sartana (Jessica Alba, SIN CITY) is hunting down the roots of The Network, an organization that helps good people in bad situations make their way over the border. She believes the mythic rebel leader She is involved and knows that taco truck owner Luz (Michelle Rodriguez, GIRLFIGHT) knows something about it all.

The idea for the film originated as one of the fake trailers that played in GRINDHOUSE. Like that film, this actioner is an over-the-top send-up of the B-genre flicks of the 1970s. Excessive cartoony violence, campy humor populate most of the film's running time. In one scene a naked woman finds an ingenious, if not uncomfortable, place to hide a cell phone. In another, Machete takes a page from Riki-Oh's skill set and uses a henchman's intestines as a useful tool. Director Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis also play up Latino clichés. When The Network goes into battle, they ride in a fleet of brightly colored hydraulic low-riders. Cheech Marin shows up as Machete's priest brother Padr and steals most of his scenes with a droll approach. As he says, God gives mercy; he has none.

While the film provides a great deal of fun, it has the same issue that many of Rodriguez's films have had since ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO — way too many characters. Machete is an iconic hero, but he has to divide his screen time with the iconic She and agent Sartana. The same happens on the villain side with no less than four despicable baddies. The audience doesn't have the pure emotional pull of gunning for the man who killed Machete's family, because he has reason to gun for them all. And when we get to Lindsay Lohan's drug addict/fledgling porn star/fake nun we wonder why she's even in this movie. But because all the characters are good, the film survives the problem, but lacks the simple epic conflict that made EL MARIACHI and DESPERADO so good.

Supporters of Arizona's recent overturned illegal immigrant crackdown might take offense to this illegal immigrant wish fulfillment fantasy. While the film certainly has a pro-immigrant stance, it's not really making a serious point. We have a racist white politician and a racist white cop and an evil Mexican drug dealer, played by a white man, which are broad satirical exaggerations. But the film takes pokes at Latino clichés as well. In one fight, Machete uses a weed wacker to annoy an adversary more than harm him. This send-up is not making any point more probing than illegal immigrants are humans too. That can't be argued against even if a McLaughlin campaign ad compares Mexicans to cockroaches. At its core the film is a revenge/campy comedy flick with an immigrant twist. That said I suggest illegal immigrants in Arizona might want to go see it in New Mexico.

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Rick DeMott
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