MACHETE (2010, directed by Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Manquis, 105 minutes, U.S.)
MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY #1 (2008, directed by Jean-François Richet, 133 minutes, France)
SOUL KITCHEN (2009, directed by Fatih Akin, 99 minutes, Germany)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC After twenty-five years of playing glowering bad guys, ex-con turned actor Danny Trejo has finally made the improbable move to leading man in Robert Rodriguez’s action film throw-back Machete. Carefully balanced between spoof and action vehicle, Machete delivers on the berserk carve-’em-up mayhem promised in the character’s original fake trailer made for the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse collaboration. Machete possesses a bullish momentum from its audacious premise and although it may be one of the best realized of Rodriguez’s films it also possesses the cartoony one-dimensionality that keeps Rodriguez’s films from transcending their comic book mentality.
Then again nothing could beat the impact the film’s true trailer made when Rodriguez leaked it on Cinco de Mayo, a few weeks after Arizona enacted their extremist immigration law that basically proclaimed the legality of racial profiling. In the trailer Machete is hired from among day laborers to assassinate a racist Senator who promises a hard stance on immigration. After being double-crossed and set up as a fall guy for the crime Machete breaks loose and gets revenge on his former employers. The premise could not have seemed more “ripped from the headlines” last Spring and although the issues remain quite relevant there isn’t much more to discover than what we saw in the coming attraction.
There’s a fresh spirit to much of what is here though; Trejo is a blast as he thrusts assorted metal blades through deserving chests and throats. At one point he picks up a loose handgun and fires it into some approaching bad guys. He tilts his head quizzically, like the Frankenstein monster and drops the gun, reaffirming his preference for the weapon that gave him his name. Rodriguez has decided that his main character should speak as little as possible but I’d never noticed till now what a beautiful voice Trejo has, a gravelly purr that hints at a gentleness not apparent in his tough guy stance and battle-scarred face. The film is never better than when Trejo is on screen, at the age of sixty-six he seems to be having a blast being at the center of the spotlight.
The rest of the fun comes from the cast of scene stealers, including Cheech Marin as Machete’s sympathetic priest brother, Steven Segal sporting a Mexican accent and a preposterous toupee as the head of the drug cartel and Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, who is secretly supporting “The Revolucion” from her taco truck. Making less of an impression are Don Johnson as a killer sheriff, Lindsey Lohan as the spoiled rich daughter of a political dirty tricks man and Robert Deniro, who gives a performance no better and no worse than the film roles he’s walked through over the last decade.
Too bad Machete is no smarter than the action films it is spoofing; it still feels the need to follow all the dots to the unimaginative face-offs and showdowns without providing any extra surprises or payoffs (and taking a very un-grindhouse hour and forty-five minutes to do it). With its healthy budget and first tier talent you’d think Rodriguez would aim at making the greatest genre flick ever. Instead he seems happy just to make a pretty darn good one.
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Part Two of the Caesar-award winning crime film Mesrine has arrived in theaters, balancing out the heady rise of French robber Jacques Mesrine with his over-reaching fall. Entitled Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, the bank robber/kidnapper finds that being on top of the crime game is much more precarious than being just one of the criminal crowd.
While the second part deepens the character, Public Enemy #1 doesn’t skimp on the action, as Mesrine (again played by Vincent Cassel) has a few more prison escapes and robberies in store. While in prison he picks up another partner Besse (played by the star of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Mathieu Amalric), who quickly tires of Mesrine’s reckless, showboating style. Amalric has some enormously amusing slow burns as he listens to Mesrine, caught up in the revolutionary spirit of the 70’s, announce that he is no mere bankrobber but a soldier intent on bringing down the system. Besse shakes his head in disbelief, “We’re robbers, “ he corrects, “we want to keep the system intact so we can milk it!” The paunchy older Mesrine seems like he’s in the midst of a mid-life crisis, he’s wealthy from robbing banks but is he satisfied? He attempts to re-envision himself as something more but when he talks to the press about blowing up prisons and making revolutionary soldiers of the inmates, the police no longer wish to treat him as a publicly loved “gentleman bandit.”
It is a dark omen when Ludivine Sangnier arrives as his last girlfriend Sylvie, since we saw her with Mesrine at the opening of the first chapter, catching a hail of bullets in a police highway ambush. All of Mesrine’s bluster and bullshit takes on a pathetic air as we know he is actually taking that last walk towards execution. Like the movie itself, Mesrine’s death holds few revelations but it does supply some glorious thrills and a chance to see some fantastic French actors in their prime.
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Fatih Akin,’s latest is a humorous change of pace from his earlier international hits, Head-On and The Edge of Heaven. Akin is a German of Turkish descent and his films are awash in the international flavor of the new Europe, finding hope and drama in lives that grow connected across physical and imagined borders. Soul Kitchen has the same ingredients but this time Akin cooks them into a romantic comedy, whose slavish devotion to the genre (you could easily imagine Jennifer Aniston in a bad remake) is enlivened by the flavorful boost given by its comedic cast and one of the best soul jazz soundtracks ever complied.
Adam Bousdoukos is Zinos, a Greek immigrant in Germany trying to keep his ramshackle restaurant together. He’s got a frustrated girlfriend who wants him to follow her to Hong Kong, a jailbird brother who needs a job and an old school friend who is looking to steal his restaurant to open something classier. When he throws out his back he ends up hiring a talented chef (Birol Ünel, star of Head-On) whose aphrodisical dishes turn the restaurant into a sensation.
No gag is too corny for Akin, there’s all sort of slapstick falls, bone-headed mistakes and happy accidents that take place yet a extremely amusing cast (led by the small in stature Bousdoukos and his goofy rock star hair) and the exotic mixing of cultures gives the predictable comedy an air all its own. I wouldn’t say that I want Akin to give up on insightful dramas for a career directing comedies but Soul Kitchen is an impossibly agreeable palate cleanser from his usual diet of emotional tragedies.