“Machete Don’t Text!”

Don't start the revolution without Danny Trejo (Machete). And rethink your preconceptions of South Africa (White Wedding).

Robert Rodriguez‘s Machete press-screened too late for us to write much about it last week, but we couldn’t let the summer’s most uproarious movie slip by without a few comments.

It’s better than anything in Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino‘s Grindhouse, even though the fake “distressed-film” look, ragged jump cuts, gross-’em-out stunts, and other Seventies-style touches are exactly the same. Rodriguez obviously never got over those cheapo-sleazo drive-in thrills, and the has-been all-star cast — Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, topped by leather-faced jack-of-all-mayhem Danny Trejo — only reinforces the midnight-show atmosphere.

Rodriguez keeps adding on to the cast: Robert De Niro as a corrupt Texas state politician, Jessica Alba as a guilt-plagued Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent (oh, sure), and, in a startling bit of casting against type (ahem), Lindsay Lohan as a rich man’s slutty daughter. Their ensemble work takes into account certain physicalities notably missing from most tech-crazy PG-13 summer flicks — like knifes to the head, crucifixion, and sweat.

The story element that lifts Machete out of the easy-laugh trough is renegade Mexican cop Machete’s grudge against racist vigilantes (the term “Tea Party” is never used, but we recognize the rhetoric and symbolism) bent on murdering illegal Mexican immigrants. And probably the legal ones, too. Most mainstream films disguise their topicality behind a hedge of metaphors. None of that pussyfooting for Rodriguez, co-director Ethan Maniquis, and co-screenwriter Álvaro Rodriguez (no relation).

Billionaire rancher Van Jackson (played by Johnson) makes sport out of hunting wetbacks with a high-powered rifle from his truck as they cross the border, and he lets his buddy Senator McLaughlin (De Niro) bag one or two himself. Their anti-immigrant hysteria, fanned by McLaughlin’s TV attack ads for the upcoming election, runs slightly against the grain of rapacious businessman Michael Booth (Fahey), who opines frankly that his operations rely on cheap immigrant labor. Still, he’s not above having some matapobre fun by drumming up the hate vote. Meanwhile, bored with life in the mansion, Booth’s spoiled daughter April (Lohan) wakes up stoned in a different slum every day. Lovely family.

Also making life intolerable for the unfortunates trying to sneak into the country is an outrageous narco-jefe named Torrez (Seagal), who can’t resist traveling from his Mexican palace to Texas, where most of the action takes place. Seagal has grown considerably more massive since the Eighties; his hairline comes to a sharp point. Among Seagal, Johnson, De Niro, Fahey, and assassin-for-hire Osiris Amanpour (Tom Savini), it’s a keen run-off in the Sweepstakes of Evil, but the clear winner is De Niro, with his prop cane and hate-filled speeches. Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and other “populist” would-be leaders, take note.

Those are the bad guys. In melodramas, even ones that feature a meat thermometer sticking out of a charred corpse, the heavies usually get the best lines. This holds true in Machete, at least until our hero, going undercover as a rough-and-tumble street dude hanging around the taco truck of the beautiful Luz (Michelle Rodriguez, again no relation), finally can stand no more honky mischief and goes on the warpath. Machete’s allies, in addition to heat-packing Luz and a valiant fighting priest (Marin), are essentially every unnoticed, taken-for-granted dishwasher, gardener, and car-parker in Texas — the silent brown army that Booth exploits. So the immigrants serve a dual purpose for the powers that be: as uncomplaining workers and also as convenient bogeymen for unscrupulous office seekers.

But to Machete, Luz, and the rest of us, they’re just ordinary people trying to get along — and tired of being doormats. “¡Viva la revolución!” growls Machete as he takes up his blade. After a career portraying henchmen, convicts, dog-kickers, and eye-gougers, Trejo finally gets to be the hero. Advised to send a text message to his supporters, he also drops this bomb: “Machete don’t text!” What are you going to do with a guy like that? He’s altogether too real to be governor. Machete cuts through all the wickedness. Grenades are launched and body parts separated from the mainland.

This violently refreshing entertainment functions equally well as a rowdy political satire, sort of a Wag the Dog for fans of hot lengua tacos and cold Negra Modelo. Faster patter, more T&A, and bigger laughs than any three ordinary “action” movies, plus a gratifying comeback for filmmaker Rodriguez, once again reaching into the border-town gutbucket, and this time pulling out gold.

From the evidence of District 9 and now Jann Turner‘s ingratiating comedy White Wedding, it’s fair to say some groundbreaking is going on in South African cinema. Even if it weren’t such a charming, conciliatory (that’s the key word in the former home of apartheid) film, the adventures of two black yuppies, a white English tourist, and a goat named George would be notable all by itself. How many interracial comic road trip movies do we get from South Africa, anyway?

Elvis (played by co-writer Kenneth Mkosi), a man with the face of a benign black Buddha, is such a nice guy he misses his bus while helping a lost child at Johannesburg airport. Now he and best friend Tumi (Rapulana Seiphemo, the other co-writer) must drive all the way across the country to Elvis’ wedding in Cape Town. Ayanda, the intended bride (Zandile Msutwana), already has her hands full dealing with gowns, a nervous wedding planner, and an army of relatives in the township of Guguletha.

Naturally, everything goes wrong on the road. It isn’t that Turner, Mkosi, and Seiphemo’s scenario is radically different than most “bachelor party” romps — except that Elvis is the opposite of a horny sybarite. The striking difference between White Wedding and, say, The Hangover is that it’s a national reconciliation in microcosm. Everywhere Elvis and the other black characters go, they have to cross the racial barrier before they can do anything else. This leads to a succession of tense moments that somehow resolve themselves, with the white tourist they pick up hitchhiking (Jodie Whittaker), their adventures in a bar full of surly Afrikaners, and dialogue like this line from Ayanda’s mother, describing her daughter’s ex: “He’s a real man, and he’s circumcised.” Welcome to South Africa.

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