Friday, August 6, 2010

Viva Machete

20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
The 67th annual Venice Film Festival kicks off with a bang and a body count this year as Robert Rodriguez's keenly anticipated revenge thriller Machete premieres on opening night, Sept. 1, at a midnight screening in the 1,100-seat Sala Grande theater at the famous Palazzo del Cinema theater complex on the Lido. Rodriguez's blood-soaked, star-studded actioner will not be competing in the festival, however the witching-hour screening will be heavily attended by the international press, which will likely fuel the growing buzz in the runup to the film's U.S. opening on September 3.

Robert Rodriguez/Troublemaker Studios
We needn't expect much in the way of character development from Machete, but that's not the point of Rodriguez's high octane shoot-em-ups. They're all about guns, girls, tough guys, psychos, and massive, waste-laying paybacks on a thermonuclear scale. What makes Machete unique, apart from the reportedly spectacular level of graphic, Scarface-style violence, is that it may be the first theatrical film ever produced after the trailer was made. 

A few years ago, Rodriguez and pal Quentin Tarantino were inspired to direct the first authentic, intentional B-movie double feature of the post-drive-in era. It was called Grindhouse (Dimension Films, 2007), and consisted of two original films, Deathproof and Planet Terror, which were intended as an homage to the schlocky, violent, over-the-top sorts of movies that tended to play at shabby downtown grindhouses and rural drive-in theaters in the 60s and 70s. Movies with titles like Two Thousand Maniacs; Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS; Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!; and Night of the Bloody Apes--the sort of breathlessly transgressive fare that teenage boys live for.

Dimension Films
Despite the great Dragstrip Girl-style promotional artwork, Grindhouse was ultimately let down by a publicity campaign that oddly failed to find its audience. Critics also made much of the film's 3-hour plus running time, which may have seemed a tad daunting even for die-hard Tarantino and Rodriguez fans. 

Though Grindhouse was a commercial disappointment, critics and moviegoers who saw the film lauded it as a viable reboot of a once-dormant genre. Deathproof and Planet Terror were both enormously entertaining, however Deathproof was arguably superior because of Zoe Bell's heart-stopping stunt work on the hood of a racing 1970 Dodge Challenger, which was one of the most terrifying things ever captured on film.

Aside from Bell, the most inspired feature of Grindhouse was the inclusion of a handful of faux movie trailers for nonexistent 70s-style horror and exploitation films. The teasers were sly, dead-on spoofs of the outrageous, badly dubbed, half-assed, sucker-born-every-minute skin, gore and action movies that were once so much a part of the refreshingly seedy underbelly of American popular culture.

Ilsa - She Wolf of the SSRob Zombie's trailer for Werewolf Women of the SS was a sendup of nazi-themed exploitation films such as Freulein Devil and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS; Eli Roth's Thanksgiving was a gory lampoon of holiday-themed slasher flicks; and Edgar Wright's Don't was a spot-on teaser for a Legend of Hell House-style horror thriller. 

Nova Scotians Jason Eisener, John Davies, and Rob Cotterill's Hobo with a Shotgun took dead aim at low-rent Exterminator-style revenge thrillers. Their trailer--which was shot for about $150--was included in Grindhouse after it won Robert Rodriguez's South-by-Southwest grindhouse trailer competition. 

trailer 125
Dimension Films
The fake trailers were deliberately discolored--as if the cheap emulsions had faded with  age--and were intentionally damaged and sloppily spliced together to mimic the wear and tear of having been run through a thousand rickety projectors. The teasers were so authentic, in fact, that one might easily have been fooled into believing these were trailers for actual films. 

Ironically, they all will be films. Edgar Wright's Don't and Eli Roth's Thanksgiving are reportedly in the writing stages, and Jason Eisener has just finished wrapping principal photography on the feature version of Hobo with a Shotgun starring Rutger Hauer, who presumably was cast due to his resemblance to actor David Brunt, who played the role in the original trailer. (NOTE: trailer is age-restricted due to language and violence.) 

The most popular of Grindhouse's faux trailers, though, was Robert Rodriguez's teaser for Machete, in which veteran Mexican-American character actor Danny Trejo appeared to star in a violent action thriller. "Machete!", growled the tough-guy narrator. "He knows the score! He gets the women! He kills the bad guys!" The macho hyperbole reaches its lunatic zenith near the end of the trailer when the narrator warns, "If you're gonna hire Machete to kill the bad guy, you'd better make damn sure the bad guy isn't you!"

Firebike 400
20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
The character of Machete was completely unlike most action heroes today, with their chiseled good looks and shaved heads. He had long hair, a droopy Fu Manchu mustache, and he looked tough, man, like the kind of guy who eats nails for breakfast with a side of double ott buckshot. He was a breed of gritty, hardcore, blood and guts badass that audiences hadn't seen since the days of Charles Bronson, and they loved it!

20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
The part of Machete was literally tailor-made for Trejo. In 1993, when Rodriguez cast Trejo in a supporting role for Desperado (1995), Rodriguez was so impressed with Trejo's presence and acting skills that he felt Trejo ought to be starring in his own series of action films. Rodriguez promptly hammered out a Mr. Majestyk-style action thriller called Machete, written with Trejo in mind, however the script languished on a shelf for over a decade as the newly-in-demand Rodriguez was tapped to direct one major project after another. In the meantime, he continued to cast Trejo in supporting roles in half a dozen movies (i.e., From Dusk Till Dawn, the Spy Kids films, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, etc.).

20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
When the Grindhouse project came along, it was Quentin Tarantino who suggested that he and Rodriguez do a series of phony movie trailers. Rodriguez thought, if he couldn't do Machete the movie, why not do Machete the trailer? So he did.

And the trailer did exactly what trailers are supposed to do: it made audiences want to see the movie. Folks told Rodriguez that if he made it, they would come. Rodriguez, who is famous for soliciting input from his fans, didn't take much convincing: it was a movie he'd been wanting to make for ten years.

Dimension was understandably gun-shy at the idea, having lost a cool $40 million on the Grindhouse experiment, so a brief but heated bidding war ensued, from which 20th Century Fox emerged the victor. In the time it took to say "Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!", the ink was dry on the deal that would turn Machete the trailer into Machete the movie.

20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
The final film, which Rodriguez co-directed with his longtime editor Ethan Maniquis, has undergone few plot changes since the project was first announced, and as near as we can tell from the film's official website, the storyline is as follows:

Machete (Trejo) appears to be just another Mexican migrant worker kicking around the dusty border towns of Texas, looking for work as a day laborer. "Seventy dollars a day for yard work" he says. "A hundred for roofing. One twenty-five for septic." In truth, he is actually a renegade former Mexican Federale who's trying to escape his violent past after clashing with a brutal druglord named Torrez (Steven Seagal). 

Machete eventually lands a big-ticket gig, though not raking leaves. A powerful local businessman named Booth (played by Jeff Fahey, whom we haven't seen enough of in movies these days), has a lucrative but dangerous proposition: the assassination of a troublesome U.S. senator named McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), in exchange for which Machete will be paid $150,000 cash. It seems McLaughlin's tough anti-immigration policies are resulting in the deportation of thousands of undocumented workers, which is bad for business and bad for Mexicans. The way Booth sees it, McLaughlin needs to take a dirt nap before he does any more damage. 

20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
Machete accepts the job, however what he doesn't realize is that Booth is actually setting him up to be the fall guy in a false flag operation designed to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.

What Booth doesn't realize is that Machete is an ex-Mexican Federale and former C.I.A. assassin with a unique set of killing skills, most of which involve long, sharp knives. And brother, is he ever pissed!

Along for the mayhem-laden ride are Don Johnson as a "twisted border vigilante," Jessica Alba  as a tough immigration cop, Michelle Rodriguez as a butt-kicking taco truck operator, and scene-stealer Cheech Marin  as a priest who's "good with blessings, but better with guns."

Lindsay Lohan, who could use some good press these days, reportedly appears in the campy but potentially career-boosting role of Booth's rebellious daughter, who, if the trailers are any indication, dresses like a nun and has a fetish for firearms.

With the recent brouhaha over Arizona's controversial immigration law, Machete's timing couldn't be better. Never mind that the film was in post-production by the time the Arizona story broke. In a brilliant marketing move, Rodriguez released a special "illegal" version of the movie trailer on Cinco de Mayo. The new teaser opened with Danny Trejo growling into the camera, "This is Machete, with a special Cinco de Mayo message-- (zoom in on Trejo's scowling face) --to Arizona!" 

20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
Another sequence features a fiery Jessica Alba looking for all the world like a revolutionista, thrusting her fist into the air and shouting, "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us!"

With conservative pundits publicly railing against the film's allegedly "racist," pro-immigrant stance, sight unseen--some, such as Alex Jones, are even warning that the film will spark a race war--Rodriguez's shameless exploitation actioner is attracting the kind of publicity that money can't buy.

20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
For whatever reason, Machete appears to be generating the kind of buzz that eluded Deathproof and Planet Terror, and if Rodriguez's ultra-violent Grindhouse spinoff lives up to its expectations, Machete may ultimately accomplish what Grindhouse could not: the revivification of exploitation as a viable genre. If the film turns out to be half as electrifying as its controversial new red band trailer, Rodriguez will have a monster hit on his hands come labor day weekend, and there will be a new star in the Hollywood firmament named Danny Trejo.

The star of Machete has spent the last twenty years or so carving a niche for himself as one of Hollywood's most dependable and hard-working supporting players, and he's more than paid his dues. Machete  may make Trejo an action hero, but it likely won't go to his head. His reputation for being down-to-earth is well known in the industry. Trejo is about as un-"Hollywood" as you can get and still be in the movies.

20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
Growing up in the LA suburb of Pacoima, Trejo had dreams of becoming a professional boxer. He was good at it, too, except that he got involved with drugs and crime at an early age and ended up spending a lot of time in jail, even as a teen. As an adult, he became an authentic tough guy of the sort that he would later play so often in the movies. He carried a .44 magnum. He was the real deal. By the time he decided to clean up his act, he had done time in every major prison in California except Alcatraz, and that was only because Alcatraz was closed. Folsom, Soledad, San Quentin--Trejo had been there.

In interviews, Trejo frequently marvels at how he's lucky to be alive. 

Trejo eventually found his higher power, and he swore off the drugs and booze. He never drank or used again. He became a  drug counselor--which he still is--and today he visits the prisons he used to call home, trying to talk some sense and hope into guys who don't seem to have a lot of either.

Once, while Trejo and Robert De Niro were working on Machete, De Niro drove out to a prison to meet with Trejo and give a talk to the inmates. De Niro is a class act as far as Trejo's concerned.

Since turning his life around, Trejo steadfastly insists that every good thing that has happened to him has come as a result of having helped somebody else. As evidence, he cites the now-famous story of how he got into the movie business. 

One night in 1985, Trejo received a frantic call from a recovering addict whom he had sponsored. Job stresses were tempting the caller to use. He wondered whether Danny would mind coming down to the job site to talk him through it. Trejo showed up, of course, only to find himself on the set of the prison-themed action thriller Runaway Train. While there, he was spotted by the film's screenwriter, Edward Bunker, who had previously done time with Trejo at San Quentin. As it so happened, the filmmakers needed an extra who really looked like a tough con. Trejo was the real McCoy. What's more, they also needed a boxing trainer for star Eric Roberts; since Trejo had previously been California state prison boxing champion, he was offered the job. It was pure serendipity. Or very good karma. 

Trejo has worked steadily ever since as a supporting actor, usually playing heavies or tough guys, but sometimes nice guys, as in the Spy Kids movies. His craggy, seen-it-all face is instantly recognizable. He's been in so many films, even he can't keep track. Watching cable movies with his wife and kids, he's frequently surprised to see himself onscreen. "I didn't know I was in that!", he often jokes.

Trejo may be one of Hollywood's unlikeliest celebrities, but the former knockabout street kid and ex-con from Pacoima is now the star of a potential blockbuster that's about to make its debut at the oldest and most prestigious film festival in the world. Whatever mistakes Danny Trejo may have made in the past, he seems to have repaid his karmic debt about a hundred times over.

Arm 400
20th Century Fox/Troublemaker Studios
Machete premieres on Sept. 1 at midnight in the prestigious Sala Grande, or "big room" at the Palazzo del Cinema theater complex, about which Italian director Federico Fellini once said, "Entering the Palazzo del Cinema at the Venice Film Festival was like passing a final exam." The Palazzo del Cinema, which consists of four theaters and commands a view of the Adriatic Sea, is the main venue for the historic festival, which will run from Sept. 1-11.

Machete will open nationwide on Friday, Sept. 3.

According to an article by the usually reliable Adam Stephen Kelly of Screen Jabber, Quentin Tarantino has apparently put together a new Grindhouse-style trailer to run prior to Machete. The teaser will be for a 70s-style exploitation flick entitled Agent Orange, in which Tim Roth plays a (presumably unhinged) British soldier intent upon re-fighting the War in Vietnam. Sacha Baron Cohen is slated to play a British colonel, with Stacy Keach on board as a heavy named "Doc Franklin."

Kelly also reports that Machete co-director Ethan Maniquis has created the trailer for a proposed sequel, Die, Machete, Die!, which will roll at the end of the film.

Rodriguez's friend and frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino has been selected as president of the 67th Venice Film Festival's international film jury, which will include Mexican writer/director Guillermo Arriaga; Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite; French writer/director Arnaud Desplechin; American composer Danny Elfman; Italian writer/director Luca Guadagnino; and Italian writer/director Gabriele Salvatores.

Machete official website

Machete Red Band trailer (suitable for 18 and older only):

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