Genre: Action, Thriller
Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Robert de Niro, Lindsay Lohan
Director: Robert Rodriguez
When Tarantino and Rodriguez came out with grindhouse, the overwhelming response for his short mock trailer to be turned into a feature length film in its own right was such that when finally questioned upon it directly during a public appearance, he resolved to grant the wish of the fans. Reputedly having written it shortly after “Desperado” way back in '95, it would seem that it wasn't only the fans that were interested in seeing it brought to life; roping in the likes of De Niro, Alba, Lohan, Michelle Rodriguez (no relation), and Seagal, as well as of course Danny Trejo, reprising his role as the now infamous Machete (a role he first played in “Spy Kids.” No, seriously) to form a rather impressive cast list. And whilst the director has made his missteps in the past, with “Planet Terror” in his recent list of successes, this repeat of that throwback style is something which should fill even the biggest grindhouse fan with a glimmer of hope.
The flick begins with an awful lot of promise; Trejo, a machete and plenty of people to use it on. You aren't entirely sure why he's fighting beyond the knowledge he's a cop, but nonetheless he goes in with gusto and lays waste to all in his path. Enter the femme fatale who quickly leads him to the big bad villain: Seagal. Who conveniently has Machete's wife. Whom he kills. And so the revenge tale starts: a battle between Machete and wait...he's running to Texas? Ok, so that wasn't the start, and NOW it's starting. He's picked up by a passer by (who ends up being a senator's aide) who doesn't know who he is, other than a tough looking Mexican, and tells him to kill the senator for being in allegiance with racist gun nuts - apparently there's a lot of them in Texas – or he'll deport him back to Mexico. So off he trots to go do that when he discovers he was set up. Machete, now getting mightily pissed off at being abused like this again decides to join the underground Mexican resistance and start fighting back. Oh, and that aide is being given money by Seagal whose a drug baron that eventually has to come and fight Machete himself. Y'see, that intro did have a point in the end.
The plot is far more detailed than I anticipated – to be honest I wasn't expecting there to really be a plot at all – and yet it never feels confusing or complex simply for the sake of complexity; it doesn't ever give the impression that it's pandering to the new “Inception” crowd who like a little less mindless in their mindless action, and the only real drawback is that the core revenge theme of the film has nothing to do with the film for most of its duration, getting lost in the landscape of corrupt Texan politics and constituting only the minor drawback of prolonging the film longer than it was really needed. Many of the issues instead arise from the exploitation aspects themselves. The violence may be frequent but it's on display very briefly leaving things rather bloodless, and the nudity doesn't really do much to compensate, any given scene lasting only a few seconds.
Grindhouse flicks always followed a simple pattern not all that dissimilar to the B-Movies of today; take a cast of unknowns, construct it all on a shoestring budget, feature excessive amounts of sex and violence (often mocking themselves along the way) and never slow down. Now two of these elements are already quite obviously missing, but this has a knock on effect; when dealing with well known celebrities, just how many of them will be willing to get their tits out on camera for a laugh? And with the budget comes the concern of marketability, along with toning down any violence to make it palatable to a wider audience and recoup its costs. This was my concern going in and it turns out I was justified in my thoughts; it feels all too constrained and almost half-hearted in its attempt to double up as both a respectful throwback to the forgotten era whilst still being marketable to a modern audience. Whilst much the same could be said of his last attempt, “Planet Terror,” any shortcomings there were more than made up for with the humour, which is painfully lacking from this effort. It tries to take a more serious tone on it all whilst still relying on a ridiculous premise and it doesn't quite work.
This is all not to say it doesn't come without its merits; Lohan may still irritate me to no end but there's no argument that the role doesn't feel suited to her, and much the same can be said of the rest of the cast. With the exception of Alba who still feels to me she's getting her roles for her appearance than for any actual acting ability (she even won a Razzie this year), they all feel as though they were cast before the script was finished, so snugly do they fit into their roles. Michelle's “badass bitch” has never felt as though it was given more drive and purpose than as the young revolutionary; Seagal's debut as a villain feels suitably deadly with his chosen weapon despite the fact that every new film he makes, his belly seems to have grown a few more inches; De Niro's run of bad films continues with a film designed to be bad, and he too fits the character perfectly. And then Trejo, who more often than not doesn't seem to be acting at all and instead is just himself.
Whether through talent, decisive last minute changes to the script or careful casting, Rodriguez has shown that he knows exactly what he's doing in directing a grindhouse flick. He even has a flair for it; a love and respect that oozes out into his work; from the homage of the infamous church scene from John Woo's “The Killer,” breathed new life by an all too short-lived performance from Cheech Marin, all the way to the classic nunsploitation referencesm often performed to some classic seedy 70s Jazz, its clearly a style he knows well. He's simply trying to recreate a style in a manner that betrays the originals and I can't envisage how it could ever work. Ditch the celebrities and shave off 90% of the budget, then we might have a real winner on our hands.