A cut above

Posted on 02 Sep 2010 at 5:58pm

‘Machete’ succeeds in B-movie glory while Clooney’s dark side in ‘The American’ is looking real good

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT | Danny Trejo cuts to the quick as the title character in ‘Machete’ by director Robert Rodriguez. The movie was filmed in Austin.

3 out of 5 stars
MACHETE

Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba,
Danny Trejo. Rated R. 105 minutes.
Now playing in wide release.

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Some elitists used to think the ”B” in B-movie stood for bad.  Well, they weren’t out to win Oscars.  They were just lower-budgeted pictures without big stars and some of them were more fun than their more expensive brethren. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have made it their mission to bring back the Bs, bigger and better than ever.  The results have been mixed but still reach a pinnacle of sorts with Machete, expanded by Rodriguez and company from a fake trailer in the 2007 release of Grindhouse which featured a classic double-bill of Death Proof by Tarantino and Planet Terror by Rodriguez.

Like Russ Meyer’s films Machete works on two levels.  It has enough boobs and booms to please fans of cheap action movies, but others will see it as a hilarious spoof of that genre.  Like Avatar, it has a liberal political message that may go over conservative heads.

With immigration the wedge issue in this year’s elections, you couldn’t ask for a more timely movie.  Conservative Texas Sen. John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) is running for re-election on a platform of protecting our borders, specifically the one with Mexico.  If you can follow the plot through all its distractions, his campaign is being financed by Mexican drug lord Torrez (a plump, accented Steven Seagal), who has his own reasons for wanting to control the border.  The buffer between them is McLaughlin’s aide, Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey).

Then there is the Network, a group of humanitarian revolutionaries who help people cross the border illegally so they can provide for their families while also being a source of the cheap labor that industries demand.  Their semi-mythical leader, She, runs a taco stand under her everyday identity, Luz (Michelle Rodriguez, looking hotter and more feminine than she ever has).

The border is getting extra protection from Von (Don Johnson) and his ruthless, insensitive vigilantes.  More legal, hence less effective methods are used by ICE agent Sartana (Jessica Alba, who, it occurs to me, would be great in a biography of Rita Hayworth).

Saving the best for nearly last, Danny Trejo moves up to star status as Machete, a Mexican Federale who is ambushed and left for dead before the opening credits.  Three years later he’s in Texas getting involved with all the other characters.  Machete is not only his given name but also the trademark weapon with which he decapitates or literally disarms his opponents, none of whom are able to shoot him before he gets close enough to swing his blade.

Other characters that round out the film include Machete’s brother (Cheech Marin) who’s a father in the church.  Booth has a wife, June (Alicia Marek), and daughter, April (Lindsay Lohan), who spend more time in the movie than they do in their clothes, but not much.  Imagine Lohan as a drugged-out slut — talk about stretching as an actress!

Frame for frame, Machete is as entertaining as any movie this year.  If only viewers would emulate the line that deserves to be on t-shirts: Machete don’t text.

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TRUST ISSUES | George Clooney plays a hitman trying to lead a quiet life in ‘The American’ and meets a suspicious woman played by Thekla Reuten.

3 out of 5 stars
THE AMERICAN

George Clooney, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli.
Rated R. 95 minutes. Now playing in wide release.

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Moviegoers have a clear-cut choice this weekend between Machete’s wall-to-wall action with a satirical edge and the slow, somber, suspense of The American.  Both are good examples of their kind so it depends on your mood. Except for maybe Matt Damon, you couldn’t ask for a more all-American guy than George Clooney to play the title role in The American.  Not that it matters, because in the world of hitmen (and women) your country of origin is less important than who you’re working for.

The quiet opening establishes Jack (Clooney) during a romantic idyll in Sweden, but before five minutes have passed he’s killed three people, two in self-defense, then is on his way to Italy.  There, he’s directed to a small town where he should lay low and “and above all, don’t make any friends, Jack.  You used to know that.”

Is Jack losing his edge?  He goes to a different town, discards the cell phone his boss gave him and calling himself Edward, makes friends with the village priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute.  Even a lone wolf needs a she-wolf from time to time.

He accepts a job, preparing a weapon for a female assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) whom he doesn’t fully trust. Some of the film’s best scenes are the ones in which we’re brought into his suspicions and kept in suspense about the outcome.

Clooney is the perfect combination of actor and movie star.  He shows his dark side here with some tenderness but no wisecracking.  He’s got a body designers want to hang clothes on and women and gay men want to see naked.  The American obliges both with Clooney leaner and more muscular than he’s been in years.

Like most American-made products today, The American is composed mostly of foreign parts.  That includes Dutch-born, UK-based director Anton Corbijn (Control) and all of the cast but Clooney. Like Clooney’s character, Corbin is methodical in his use of artificial colored lighting to brighten this existential drama.  The scenic Italian locations are off the beaten path, unlike the plot, which is so familiar the screenplay doesn’t bother to fill in details.  You follow the man, not the story — Clooney’s worth following, so it works.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 3, 2010.

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