It's an intriguing grudge match: The taciturn star of Machete vs. the over-the-hill stars of The Expendables. Even with the odds against him, I'd put my money on the dude who speaks softly and carries a big slice-and-dice stick.
More fun than a barrel of Sylvester Stallone DVDs, Machete is gleeful trash that delivers on the promise it held when it was just a twinkle in creator Robert Rodriguez's eye, as one of the mock trailers shown in the 2007 Rodriguez-Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse. I'll leave it up to the culture critics to determine whether its outlandish brand of gore and violence is more detrimental to society than the more realistic sadism exhibited in movies like Kick-Ass, but everything about
Machete is so over the top that it's impossible to feel as if one's morals are being compromised by this thing. When a movie quickly moves from a sequence in which the title bad-ass (played by Danny Trejo) decapitates several men with one swift 360-degree turn to a scene in which a naked woman retrieves a hidden cell phone from her vajayjay, it's clear that nothing's to be taken seriously.
That's not to say the movie won't incense a significant amount of folks, particularly our friends in the GOP. As expected, the Mexicans are the heroes, demanding to be treated like people and eager to have a crack at the American Dream. On the other side of the spectrum are the rich Texas fat cats determined to keep them down, including a right-wing Senator (Robert De Niro) who ruthlessly guns down illegal border crossers when he's not busy hitting the campaign trail. Machete is coerced into taking out this slimy politico, but he quickly realizes he's been double-crossed, and he has to rely on two women -- Michelle Rodriguez's fiery revolutionary and Jessica Alba's immigration officer -- to help him out.
Whether it's a beefy Steven Seagal or a topless Lindsay Lohan, viewers never quite know who or what Machete will throw at them next. Rodriguez's shooting style is as playful as ever, but the film's greatest pleasure rests with the casting of Danny Trejo. Usually spotted in fleeting roles as a menacing thug, Trejo fills the screen in his biggest part to date. Imposing and unconventional, he cuts through the image of the dashing action hero with exceptional ease.
The title of George Clooney's latest would suggest that here's a film reminiscent of Mom and apple pie. In truth, the picture has more in common with Padre and panna cotta. Deliberately paced and artfully rendered, The American frequently feels like an Antonioni knockoff whose prints ended up at the nation's multiplexes instead of its art-houses.
Working from Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, Dutch director Anton Corbijn and British scripter Rowan Joffe have fashioned a quiet, meditative piece about a seasoned assassin, Jack, who finds himself on the run from other hitmen. Ordered by his boss (Johan Leysen) to hide out in a small Italian town, Jack is soon tasked with providing another killer, the enigmatic Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), with a specially crafted rifle so she can carry out her own assignment. Having recently killed an innocent lover in order to cover his own tracks, Jack knows better than to get involved with anyone in the village, but he rebels against his own instincts, befriending an elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and becoming romantically entangled with a local prostitute (Violante Placido).
An established master of minimalism, Clooney keeps his emotions close to the vest, an appropriate response given his character's existential outlook. The rest of the film follows suit, rarely breaking a sweat in its observations of Jack and his claustrophobic, suffocating lifestyle. The one exception to the low-volume level is a vehicular chase that punctuates the proceedings like a pin to a balloon; the rest of the film is moody and mannered, an approach certain to divide moviegoers.
For me, the thoughtful pace was appreciated; what wasn't appreciated was that it's wrapped around a tale that could have used a little more inspiration in branching out its characters. A weary hitman, a hooker with a heart of gold and a jovial priest might be the basis for a great joke were they all to enter a bar, but as the central ingredients of a story meant to compel, this assemblage predates even the U.S. Constitution.