Knives, Chow

I spent a throwback night at the movies on Saturday. A friend in need of distraction opted for Machete instead of The American, and things got even more indulgent when times didn't add up. We'd each already had a snack in anticipation of going to dinner after the movie, and were talked out from the night before, so Machete became the back half of a double feature kicked off by Piranha 3D. The last time I went to the multiplex for a dose of retro, which was just a couple of weeks ago to see The Expendables (not my first, second, or third choice), the flick didn't even have the courtesy to meet my low expectations. Saturday night was all right for fighting, though, and not that bad for screaming or biting either.

Piranha 3D poster © 2010 Dimension Films. Original Piranha poster © 1978 New World Pictures.

Piranha 3D is no classic, let's be clear. For at least the first two-thirds it's kinda boring — a bad move for any piece of entertainment, but a cardinal sin for a self-awarely trashy movie. We know that there's going to be mayhem in the final act, after all, rather than cerebral plot twists that cast everything that has come before in a new light blah blah blah, so getting there had better be fun. That same anticipated explosion of carnage might be what keeps the buildup so dull, since you can only go to the full-on piranha attack once, but the pieces were in place to add a lot more in the way of side stories, character bits, and humor than was offered. Director Alexandre Aja has made a decent-looking movie, and the 3D is frankly pretty damn good, yet the narrative, I say with a straight face, is lacking; jazzing up formula can be and has been done before.

Based on the 1978 Piranha, a low-budget screamfest that capitalized on Jaws and has already been pseudo-sequelized and/or remade in each of the past two decades, this incarnation unleashes a posse of prehistoric piranha on the fictional Lake Victoria, Arizona, during the town's annual Spring Break gathering. Richard Dreyfuss has a much-reported-upon extended cameo at the film's start as a fisherman with the bad luck to be near a laughably CGI'd whirlpool when an earthquake opens up an abyss where the monster fish have been sequestered and from which they ride the vortex to the surface. We learn of their origins from seismologists sent out to the lake and a dotty old marine biologist played by Christopher Lloyd, of whom the movie could've used a lot more; luckily, the story is anchored in part by Elisabeth Shue — whom younger audiences may not recognize for her '80s roles in The Karate Kid or alongside Lloyd in the Back to the Future sequels any more than they recognize Dreyfuss for his stint as a '70s sensitive guy in The Goodbye Girl or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or even Jaws, defeating part of the nostalgia casting. Shue plays Julie Forester (or so IMDB tells me; I recall almost nobody's name), Sheriff of Lake Victoria, who has left her older son, Jake, played by The Vampire Diaries' Steven R. McQueen, in charge of his younger siblings. Of course Jake wants to partake of Spring Break and in fact is tapped by a soft-core porn impresario played by Jerry O'Connell to do some location scouting. Zany hijinks, or at least a lot of jiggling and dismemberment, ensue.

Shue may be a minor icon of my younger years, but I mostly have affection for her portrayal of "Elisabeth Shue" in the bizarre Hamlet 2, a good rental for Glee fans or anyone who can handle uncomfortable comedy and thinks that an amateurish stage musical featuring a time-traveling Jesus helping out the Prince of Denmark sounds like fun. Had that film not beaten them to it, the writers of Piranha 3D would've done well to make Sheriff Forester and her deputy, played by Ving Rhames, a fictionalized Elisabeth Shue and Ving Rhames — buddy-cop versions of themselves as retired actors looking for a quiet life in the small-town Southwest but toughened up enough by Hollywood that law enforcement is the perfect gig. There's far too little winking as opposed to just wallowing in its exploitation going on, with the most memorable quippiness coming early when Jake's little sister has an exchange with Kelly Brook about her "nice boobs". (My favorite lines, actually, came when Shue betrayed her Jersey roots and told everyone to get out of the "wooder" — although curiously, she grew up to the north where the dialect tends to be more New York than Philly.)

There's also a vague sense that the filmmakers might be trying to equate the piranhas' lust for blood with the partying kids' lust for one another's bodies and a general good time, or with the audience's lust for blood and for the partying kids' bodies as a questionable excuse for a general good time, or something. If it's there, though, it's not very well, uh, fleshed out, and any such social message is undercut by such obvious promotion of the nudity and gore.

So... I'll say it: Piranha 3D could have used more to chew on.

I can't recommend the movie for what it costs at the theater, but that's the only way it's worth seeing at all until really good home 3D comes about and you can gather up a bunch of friends for a mindless night in front of a wall-sized TV. Since I had a coupon, I paid less than a third of the $15 ticket price, and in context it was all right for a once-in-a-blue-moon diversion with maybe a few gross-out moments that go too far over the top; I have no tolerance for the likes of Saw, which besides the disgusting levels of viscera feature human depravity rather than animal instinct as the instrument of carnage. Piranha 3D, or rather just Piranha, is ostensibly playing as a plain old "flat" movie, too, by the way — in which form I'd imagine what enjoyable tackiness it does have is depleted disproportionately to the loss of one of its three dimensions.

The Expendables poster © 2010 Lionsgate Pictures.

Ving Rhames would have been a welcome addition to The Expendables, or perhaps a substitution for one of the guys I'm not familiar with.

When I first heard about the movie, I thought that it might be worth a look even though I wasn't as big on the genre of '80s action flicks to which it promised to hearken back as some men of my certain age. By the time it became the choice for a rare but welcome evening out with my cousins, however, it had already been laden with bad reviews and middling word of mouth despite doing boffo box office. As it turned out, its biggest problem was that it wasn't worse.

I was hoping for something more tongue-in-cheek trashy, although not without a certain earnestness. Co-written by, directed by, and starring Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables was more than earnest enough, with its band of aging mercenaries liberating an island nation in South America not for money but for some combination of pride, responsibility, and a pretty face. It just didn't have enough trash — no deadpan one-liners to remotely rival Bruce Willis's Die Hard or Arnold Schwarzenegger's Commando, nor even goofy jingoism on a par with Stallone's indelible Cold War kitsch Rocky IV.

Neither did it have enough of Willis or Schwarzenegger themselves, relegated to glorified cameos opposite Stallone in a curiously staged scene all the stranger for the fact that here and there you can tell that all three were on set together, so there's little reason for the continuous volley of close-up solo shots that fairly screamed "We have the Governor for five minutes on a makeshift soundstage! Somebody run Bruno's lines! Now, people!" The casting of Stallone's would-be Soviet nemesis from Rocky IV, Dolph Lundgren, was an unexpected treat, and Mickey Rourke adds to his recent, eclectic string of tired, tortured bruisers during a soliloquy as the Expendables' retired-from-the-field mechanic and tattoo artist. But many of the other names and faces mean little (Steve Austin, long after my time sampling "pro wrestling") or nothing (UFC'er Randy Couture, NFL'er Terry Crews) to me; I liked Stallone's intergenerational interplay with Jason Statham all right, but it mostly served to remind me that I've enjoyed the suavely gritty Statham in ensemble pieces and should add Crank or The Transporter to my inexhaustible list of Movies to Watch.

The Expendables fails the recently buzzed about Bechdel Test spectacularly, with just a pair of women getting any appreciable screen time (and separately). Angel's Charisma Carpenter has a thankless role in an out-of-nowhere side story focusing on Statham's character; at least Giselle Itié, as The Señorita Who Gets Them Mixed Up This Mess, is treated by the 64-year-old Stallone more paternally than I'd feared given that she was born the same year as Rocky III.

I don't fault the movie for its testosterone. Like Piranha 3D, it's pretty much exactly what it set out to be — except that it's also likewise a little less than advertised in terms of knowing humor. The Expendables is nothing more than a straight-ahead shoot-'em-up with some nominal soul-searching and gaping plot holes that aren't even archly referenced; it's hardly worth a look unless you're a true cultural omnivore.

Machete posters © 2010 Troublemaker Studios or 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.

Machete is by far the winner of this trio, and the better half of Saturday night's double feature; it frankly satisfies just about every itch that the above films set out to scratch combined. You do need to be able to abide some bloodspatter, though Machete is not nearly as graphic as Piranha and often hilariously integrates its shock moments into the
plot. Piranha delivered its dismemberment, including the loss of a male member, purely for the gasps and groans. Early in Machete, by contrast, someone's betrayed when a naked woman produces a cell phone from her ladyparts — the Foley artists creating the far too audible sound effects for that one must be so proud — and later the titular hero employs his newfound knowledge of the length of human intestines in an instant-classic escape attempt.

Expanded from the fake trailer that ran with 2007's Grindhouse, Machete is co-written, co-produced, and co-directed by Robert Rodriguez of Spy Kids, Desperado, and Sin City fame. It stars longtime character actor Danny Trejo as a Mexican Federale whose weapon of choice is the same as his name. Set up and left to die, he crosses the border into Texas and tries to get along as an unassuming day laborer until set up again by a political aide to Senator John McLaughlin, whose platform includes not just expanding but electrifying the border fence and whose extracurricular activities include hunting illegal immigrants with a vigilante militia. McLaughlin is played by none other than Robert DeNiro, for whom I almost typo'd Danny DeVito (perhaps due to an innate understanding that he'd perfect for some role in the sequel) and his aide is played by Lost's Jeff Fahey. Throw in Miami Vice's lately MIA Don Johnson as the militia's leader plus Steven Seagal as a Mexican drug lord named Torrez (which itself is pretty danged funny), and you have an entire crew of alternates for The Expendables. With Cheech Marin as a priest who shares a past with Machete, the '80s nostalgia quotient easily rivals that of Piranha 3D.

Trejo brings stoic to a whole new level and belongs on a Mount Rushmore of craggy, bronzed faces with Pete Postlethwaite, Edward James Olmos, and Wes Studi. Yet despite the fact that he and Rodriguez have delightfully conjured up a great new strong-but-silent, no-bullcrap brute with unerring aim in the tradition of men whom men want to be and women want to be with, Machete would be far less without its exemplars of the opposite sex. I'm unsure how much Jessica Alba, as an Immigrations officer, is consciously trying to push the clash between her doe-eyed appearance and authoritative strut into gentle parody, versus how much the filmmakers are simply taking advantage of her look and limited abilities; the shower scene where everything that straight boys paid to see in Piranha is strategically covered suggests that she's at least partly in on the joke. Sexy too but with a steelier edge is Lost and Avatar's Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, who runs a taco truck catering to the day laborers and may be involved with the Network, which helps illegals get papers and protection.

Where the movie wobbles is in its extreme portrayal of the characters whose views don't align with the Network's. It defines not just McLaughlin and the militia but anyone who supports immigration-law enforcement as slickly corrupt, murderous, or acutely stupid (if not all at once), trivializing
larger issues that are complex and validly debatable to the level of such simpler sins as greed or outright bigotry. And the film does its argument no favors by revealing that the Network is far-reaching and armed to the teeth in preparation for la revolución, which I didn't take to be an equally satiric commentary on the secret fears of White America. Machete is camp-vengeance action homaging the so-called exploitation flicks of the '70s; it's much more enjoyable doing the exploiting than preaching about the exploited in a tone mismatched to its excess.

Since my reviews of Piranha 3D and The Expendables concluded with how little time and cold, hard cash they were worth, I'll add that although I'm sure it will play great at home Machete is well worth the 10-spot or so to see in as packed a theater as possible. The sound of a weedwacker in broad daylight has never been so chilling, nor the civic conversation it interrupts so contextually comic. If you can stomach it, this slash fiction is a cut above.


Arben said...

"Knives, Chow"... Fantastic!

Blam said...

Title or post? 8^)

humanebean said...

Blam, my good man! I just stopped by for a dose of your singluar charm - or possibly a recipe for some fine guacamole. Finding no pulverized avocado, I feasted instead on some crackling cinematic commentary. All of the films mentioned have been on my list for a while: I had actually read some positive press on the success of The Expendables with suitably lowered expectations, my sweetheart and I had been looking forward to Piranha 3D primarily since Adam Scott from Party Down was in the cast and I had wanted to see Machete just to puzzle over how they managed to turn David Eggar's A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius into a movie.

Superb analysis and good to see you are still swinging from the hips. Keep those elbows in, Old Bean!