Machete (2010) (out of 4)
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis
Starring: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Shea Whigham, Lindsay Lohan, Daryl Sabara, Gilbert Trejo, Tom Savini, Alicia Rachel Marek
Hobo With A Shotgun (2011) (out of 4)
Directed by: Jason Eisener
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey, Gregory Smith, Nick Bateman, Robb Wells, Jeremy Akerman, George Stroumboulopoulos
WARNING: Some spoilers below
How bizarre that fake “Grindhouse” trailers would turn into real films. But that’s what happened with Jason Eisener’s Hobo With A Shotgun and Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. It all started with the Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007) which was a throw back to the drive-in/exploitation films of the 1970s. In the middle of that picture were faux trailers that were all over the genre map – Nazi exploitation, slashers, Hammer horror, Mexploitation (“Machete”), and gritty vigilante flicks (“Hobo With A Shotgun”). Hobo With A Shotgun was actually the winner of a fake Grindhouse trailer contest set up by Rodriguez. It was then attached to a limited number of prints of Grindhouse (mostly Canadian showings). Since Machete was the highest rated faux-trailer of the bunch, it was decided that they would make it into a real movie, which hit theaters in 2010. Hobo With A Shotgun was also made into a full length feature, which appeared at Sundance this year and also hits a limited amount of U.S. theaters this week. For some reason I am reminded of the release of Snakes on a Plane, where massive fan interest in that movie led to certain reshoots – here we have massive fan interest being the primary driver of the films’ creation in the first place. Perhaps in the future, people won’t pitch screenplays to studios, they’ll pitch trailers.
In Machete‘s prologue, Mexican Federal Police officer Cortez (Danny Trejo), nicknamed Machete for his weapon of choice, tries to rescue a nude female victim from the clutches of a drug gang run by kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). But the girl (Mayra Leal) is secretly working for Torrez (she pulls a cell phone hidden in her privates to call him), and so is the police chief. This results in the murder of Machete’s family, but his life is spared, as the cocky Torrez tells him he doesn’t deserve to die honorably. A few years later, Machete is working as an illegal immigrant day laborer in Texas, helped into the country by an underground network run by the mysterious revolutionary Shé (Michelle Rodriguez, hot). Shé, of course, conceals her identity by working a taco truck, while occasionally being harassed by FBI agent Sartana (Jessica Alba, also hot). Machete is soon picked up by businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), who offers him $150,000 to assassinate Texas Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), who runs a campaign platform based on getting rid of all the illegals. As you might have guessed from the fake (or real) trailer, Machete is double-crossed and Booth is revealed to be the Senator’s campaign manager and right hand man. Soon, Trejo is on the run, and to survive he must rely on his skills as a kick-ass Federale as well as the help of Shé, Sartana, the network, and his brother (Cheech Marin), who is now a priest (or at least, masquerading as one).
Machete reveals itself to be an absurd parody that mixes equal amounts of over-the-top gore and overly-complex plotting (for an exploitation film, anyway). While having Trejo perform eye-opening acts such as multiple-decapitations-by-machete and using a bad-guy’s intestines as a rope to escape a building, the film reveals all the major antagonists to be working together – the businessman Booth has a drug business on the side while trying to help the Senator build a border wall, who is helped by local vigilante/minuteman Von Jackson (Don Johnson) and his merry band of good-ole-boys who like to shoot immigrants sneaking over the border (even if they happen to be pregnant – you know, can’t have any anchor babies). Von gets his weapons from – who else? – drug dealer Torrez, who also wants a border fence so he can better control the drug trade. By the way, Booth has an uninhibited wife (Alicia Rachel Marek) and daughter (Lindsay Lohan) who have no problem getting it on with Machete for a special home video, which will naturally be seen by the increasingly unhinged hubby/daddy, who ends up crucifying Machete’s Padre-brother to a church cross (but not before Cheech gets to re-enact his scenes from the trailer). The film is filled with ridiculous sequences, funny lines (“Machete don’t text”), inappropriate porn music, unbelievable plot developments (the bad guy happens to reveal all his plans to the priest at confession time), and very broad swipes at anti-immigration adherents.
The fact that the film was released at the height of the illegal immigration debate must have been a hell of a stroke of luck. But I wouldn’t get too worked up on Rodriguez’s politics, no matter which side of the (border) fence you are sitting on. We’re talking about a film where a racist vigilante shoots a pregnant woman, where people rant about illegals while eating Mexican food, where Jessica Alba delivers the line “We didn’t cross the border! The border crossed us!” with a straight face. Machete is less crass exploitation and more out-and-out comedy. In my opinion, it’s really the only way to enjoy it. The film fails as a major actioner, with an ending fight between Trejo and Seagal that is over almost as soon as it begins (and with Seagal deciding to commit suicide while bragging that he could kill Machete if he wanted to – yeah, sure!). But there are so many goofy moments, hot babes, and unrestrained violence that it hardly matters. What makes the film’s weaknesses matter less is Rodriguez smart casting – Trejo, Seagal, Johnson, Marin, Fahey, M. Rodriguez, and even Lohan are in top form, in most cases satirizing their own personas.
Speaking of unrestrained violence, Eisner’s Hobo with a Shotgun pulls no punches. Not a stranger to over-the-top carnage – as his hilarious short film Treevenge proves – the Canadian director blows up his faux trailer to feature film length and replaces David Brunt (who apparently was paid in pizza and cigarettes) with somebody with a little more acting experience – Rutger Hauer (Dave Brunt still gets a minor part). The result is a brutal film with in-your-face gore and unsettling images – to give an example of how uncompromising the film is, Eisner has a pair of bad guys torch a bus full of schoolchildren while blaring Disco Inferno on a boombox. By this time, we’ve already seen a man beheaded and a woman dancing around in the ensuing blood geyser; before long, we’ll witness multiple shotgun blasts, a woman’s neck slowly cut with a hacksaw, and that same woman’s hand brutally mutilated with a lawn mower blade (but she’s a tough girl – she’ll later stab the bad guy with her stump). So yes, Hobo With A Shotgun is unrestrained in the manner that Machine Girl is – that’s not to say it isn’t filled with humorous and fun moments. The film definitely has comedic value, but it’s still something that’s much closer to true grindhouse than Machete, which merely spoofs the grindhouse astetic. If it wasn’t for the higher production values, you’d swear that Hobo With A Shotgun came from the bygone era of drive-ins and dirty, 42nd street theaters.
The title of the movie gives away the plot. Hauer plays a world-weary hobo who jumps off the rail into Hope Town, which is a literal hell-on-earth. One of the first thing he sees while he’s pushing his grocery cart through the streets is the evil Drake (Brian Downey) murdering his own brother (Robb Wells, from Trailer Park Boys) in the street with the help of his two 80s reject sons (Gregory Smith and Nick Bateman) while terrified bystanders are forced to look on. He saves hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Abby (Molly Dunsworth) from an attack but soon learns that the police of Hope Town are corrupt and working for Drake. The only thing the Hobo wants to do is buy himself a lawn mower so he can start a business (and what better to represent the desire for the idyllic home life than a lawn mower?) Of course, Hobo will witness thugs threatening a woman and her baby while in a pawn shop, so he makes the reluctant decision to spend his money on the shotgun instead of the mower. After that, Hobo starts administering justice… one shell at a time!
Hobo With A Shotgun works because it offers up good character moments in between its bloodletting. Hobo’s story to Abby about how bears go on rampages when they get used to the taste of flesh tells you something about him without having to delve into the man’s history. The pair’s desire to escape the city and start a lawn business is rather sweet, as is Hobo’s insistence that Abby is a teacher and not a prostitute, because everyone, as he says, it entitled to their dreams. Hobo With A Shotgun is like Taxi Driver, in a way, with Hauer playing Travis and Dunsworth playing Iris, but even Taxi Driver had what could be considered a happy ending. Eisner rides his movie all the way to its logical, depressing conclusion, but at least it gives Hauer the opportunity to say “We’re going on a car ride to hell… you’re riding shotgun!” There’s a lot of the nihilism and grittiness of films like Deadbeat at Dawn, Street Trash, and Basket Case in this flick, but the movie is much more surreal. First off, there’s the color palette, which is super-saturated. Every scene is otherworldly and filled with exaggerated hues – combined with the hyper camerawork, they generate a manic, pulp energy throughout the film. There’s also puzzling but welcome scenes of absurdity like the death of one of the bad guys where the charred out school bus seen earlier comes for him, or where a pair of bounty hunter/assassins dressed in armor (called “The Plague”) step away from their kidnapping/murdering duties to deal with a large, tentacled monster (a pet?)
There are scenes where it seems Eisner is infusing his violent cartoon with Biblical themes – The Plague’s trail of carnage at a hospital feels like the four horsemen paying a visit (but the pair ride motorcycles, not horses. By the way, watch for the bulletin board of their victims which include Abe Lincoln, Jesus, and the Easter bunny). He also makes sure to fill the frame with a certain 80s vibe, right down to the shades-wearing bad guys who look like extras from a John Hughes movie, and the occasional use of a DeLorean. The messages aren’t too heavy – the flick is too cartoonish in tone to start a serious crusade about the plight of the homeless. (Contrast that with Machete, which probably politicizes too much). Besides one speech given by Abby to a crowd explaining that the homeless are to be respected, the movie is strictly good-versus-evil stuff. It’s like a Troma film with a bigger budget, if Lloyd Koffman had enough discipline and focus. Not for everybody (just like Troma and Fundoshi Corps films aren’t for everyone) but it’s as close to real grindhouse as you can get. To compare it to Machete is like comparing apples and oranges – I think they serve different purposes – but I wouldn’t hesitate to put them back to back for your own in-home “Grindhouse” experience. Create your own intermission and watch Van Gore or Care Center Slaughterhouse – and I’ll see you back here in a few years when those are turned into actual movies.
- Bill Gordon