Machete/The Expendables: Two Violent Films Slay Me

Traditionally speaking, the end of August is filled with films of lesser quality– cheap cash grabs by the studios where they dump their shoddier flicks into a timeslot with little competition in hopes that a bored, hungry-for-more summer audience will waste their hard-earned money on trash. However, in a summer full of disappointment, the August “trash” has become treasure. After Scott Pilgrim and Pirahna 3D, Sylvester Stallone brings us The Expendables, and hot on his heels at the crack of September, Robert Rodriguez delivers Machete. Both films are incredibly exploitative and shockingly violent. They also both left a huge grin on my face. While tonally and politically the films couldn’t be more different, both Stallone and Rodriguez have a keen sense of what their respective audiences want to see and deliver their punches non-stop.

The Expendables has the most politically conservative plot of any film in recent memory. The title team of mercenaries is composed of Barney Ross (Sly Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Toll Road (Randy Couture). I’m pretty sure the person naming the characters just ran out of good names towards the end, but I digress. They get a job invading another country, because a militant dictator (David Zayas) has teamed up with a CIA agent gone rogue (Eric Roberts, who else?) and they’re selling drugs to America. Well, we can’t have that, can we? Stallone and Company get a slew of guns, knives, and explosives, and set out to invade the country, kill the dictator and his army, and bring violent justice to a country that threatens our democratic way of life.

If there’s one thing Stallone has regained with his recent films, it’s the knowledge of what his audiences want. They want epic fights between good and evil, gore, explosions, and general manly man male mannery. While a couple of early conflicts disappoint– in particular the Jet Li/Dolph Lundgren fight, which had no reason not to be spectacular– once the invasion of the island truly gets underway, the movie becomes an injection of testosterone. This is a “Man movie”: women are innocent virgins in need of saving, and there’s no place for true romance or sex in a Man’s world, because love, sex, and desire make you weak. Instead, one can share battle stories in their mechanic’s shack, where they talk about their newest tattoos and they throw knives at a dartboard: THAT’s where a man can be a Man.

It takes itself fairly seriously, and the dialogue is at times truly terrible, but that is to some degree part of the fun. Some of the best action movies are ones that put a smile on your face even as they earnestly cling to a sense of grave seriousness. This isn’t one of the best action movies even of this year, but the final 45 minutes absolutely by itself makes it a contender. There are enough explosions to fuel five Michael Bay films, yet it maintains its sense of fun better than Transformers does. Out of the actors, Lundgren in particular excels in this film, emerging alongside Mickey Rourke as the best actor of the bunch– can we get him a film, please? Finally, it’s important that the funniest special effect be addressed: Sylvester Stallone running. Stallone now is an old man, and while his physique is incredible for his age (shown in a completely gratuitous shirtless scene), he runs very awkwardly because his upper half is so built up. This film contains several scenes of Stallone “sprinting” with his Stallone Lip in full effect, and his upper torso is so stiff as his legs scramble beneath him that he looks like one of the marionettes from Team America. I howled laughing every time. Yet I believe Stallone knew that him sprinting is fun to watch. He clearly has a great sense of humor and his finger on the pulse of the audience. He may not have delivered the best Expendables film possible, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and worthy of its inevitable sequel.

While I’m not certain Robert Rodriguez delivered the best Machete film possible, he came pretty damn close. Unlike The Expendables, which never lets go of its very earnest seriousness, Machete perfectly toes the line between earnest and tongue-in-cheek, making it a more fun outing on the whole. We meet Machete (Danny Trejo) as a Federale, getting his wife and child killed by Torrez (Steven Seagal) and being left for dead in a burning room. Flash forward to present day: he’s an illegal immigrant day worker who gets hired by a man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) to kill an anti-immigrant Senator, John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro). Meanwhile, Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a taco truck worker/underground immigrant network boss, is attempting to help get her countrymen over while avoiding immigrations officer Santana Rivera (Jessica Alba) and evil Southern vigilante Von Jackson (Don Johnson).

Sound crowded? It might be, but Rodriguez keeps everything so breezy and carefree that it’s hard to be too distracted by the film’s flaws in pacing and structure. The first sequence alone has roughly a dozen deaths, the majority of which are beheadings or shootings committed by a gun still attached to a disembodied hand. We also get a car crash, a naked woman, and Steven Seagal. If the movie never fully lives up to the sheer pace of the mayhem set at the beginning, we still get enough to stay grinning. Rodriguez peppers the script with an abundance of one-liners and visual gags, while never allowing any of the actors to wink at the camera or be in on the joke of the film.

The joke of the film, of course, is that this 65-year old craggly-faced man is an action hero and a ladykiller. The reason why this works and it never devolves into self-parody or unadulterated silliness is Trejo’s line delivery, which is so sincere and serious. When he says “Machete don’t text,” you laugh, but not at him– you begin to understand why people see him as being so cool. In The Expendables, Men forge a bond of brotherhood and prefer their company over women, but in Machete, Men roam alone, requiring only the occasional taco for sustinence… women come as a non-essential perk. Rodriguez surrounds Trejo with scene-chewing actors, so they can have all the color while he maintains the smoothness. Folks like Jeff Fahey and Michelle Rodriguez come off great, while DeNiro is clearly having fun slumming it with the likes of Steven Seagal and Don Johnson, both of whom gets laughs with every hamfisted delivery. Even Jessica Alba, who normally reads as bland, fits in perfectly into this B-movie world… it’s possibly one of her best performances to date. Though The Expendables has its share of fun, violence, and mayhem, Machete takes it one step further, removing in our minds the wonder of whether they meant to make us laugh or not. Both films, intentional or not, are full of ridiculous action, hammy actors, and one-liners galore. They managed to do what so many other films this summer never did– live up to the expectations.

The Expendables:

Machete:

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~ by russellhainline on September 23, 2010.

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