Knives, Chow

I spent a throwback night at the movies on Saturday. A friend in need of distraction opted for Machete, 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 we splurged for a double feature kicked off by Piranha 3D. The last time I’d been to the multiplex for a dose of retro was just a couple of weeks ago to see The Expendables, which 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.

Woman floating oblivious to swarm of razor-toothed fish beneath her

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; a cardinal sin for a movie aware
of its own grade-B status. We know that there’s going to be mayhem in the final act, rather than cerebral plot twists that puts 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 detours, character bits, and humor than was offered. Director Alexandre Aja has done his job, and the 3D is frankly pretty damn good, yet not enough attempt was made to jazz up the formula.

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 spoiled-by-press extended cameo at the film’s start as a fisherman with the bad luck to be near a hilariously CGI whirlpool when an earthquake opens up an abyss where the creatures 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, seen too sparingly. The story is, luckily, 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 to an extent. Shue plays Julie Forester, 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 teen years, but my favorite memory of her is as “Elisabeth Shue” in the recent, highly bizarre Hamlet 2, a good rental for Glee fans or viewers who can handle uncomfortable comedy and won’t roll their eyes too hard at an amateurish stage musical featuring a time-traveling Jesus helping out the Prince of Denmark. 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 knocked around by Hollywood to the point that law enforcement is the perfect gig. There’s much too little winking as opposed to just wallowing in its exploitation going on.

There’s also a vague sense that the filmmakers might be trying to equate the killer fishes’ 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 so the social message isn’t very well fleshed out, no pun intended, and it’s undercut by such obvious promotion of the nudity and gore. 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 group 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; 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 simply 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.

Cast of film posing with Stallone in front, arms crossed, veined muscles bulging

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 despite
not being 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 family, however, it had already been laden with bad reviews and middling word of mouth. As it happens, its biggest problem is that it isn’t worse.

I was hoping for more of a tongue-in-cheek romp, albeit not without a certain earnestness. Co-written and directed by lead Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables is beyond sufficiently earnest; it finds a band of aging mercenaries liberating an island nation in South America not for money but for a medley of pride, responsibility, and a pretty face. It just doesn’t possess enough quip or camp — 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 the indelible Cold War kitsch of Stallone’s 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 scant 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 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. Several of the other names and faces mean little (Steve Austin, who long postdates my era of tuning into “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 buzzed-about Bechdel Test spectacularly, with just a pair of women getting appreciable screen time and separately at that. Angel’s Charisma Carpenter has a thankless role in a 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 less than advertised in terms of any knowing wit. 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, hardly worth a look unless you’re a true cultural omnivore.

Lots of posing with guns against backdrop of explosion

Machete is by far the winner of this bunch, and the better half of Saturday night’s double feature — it satisfied for me just about every itch that the above films set out
to scratch combined. You do need to be able to abide some bloodspatter, although Machete isn’t nearly as graphic as Piranha and often amusingly integrates its shock moments into the story. Piranha delivered its dismemberment, including the loss of a precious male organ, purely for the gasps and groans. Early in Machete, by contrast, a naked woman retrieves a cell phone from her ladyparts in an act of betrayal, and the Foley artists creating the improbably lound sound effects for that one must be so proud; later the titular hero employs his newfound knowledge of the length of human intestines in an instant-classic escape gambit.

Expanded from the bogus 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” handy with his namesake blade. 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 only 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, and his aide 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 (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 ’nother level and belongs on a monument of craggy,
bronze 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 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 is consciously trying to push the clash between her doe-eyed appearance and authoritative strut as an Immigrations officer 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 proscribes not just McLaughlin and the militia but any supporter of immigration-law enforcement as slickly corrupt, murderous, or acutely stupid (if not all at once), trivializing some 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 wide-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 a vengeance-oriented action flick homaging the so-called exploitation cinema of the ’70s; my own sociological sympathies aside, I found it miles more enjoyable doing the exploiting than preaching about the exploited in a tone mismatched to its excess.

Since my critiques of Piranha 3D and The Expendables concluded with how little
time and cold, hard cash they were worth, I’ll add that while I’m sure it will play great
at home Machete definitely merits the 10-spot or so to see in as packed a theater as possible. The sound of a weed-whacker 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.

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  1. "Knives, Chow"... Fantastic!

  2. 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!