Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Afterlife and Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ Machete both opened this month and both are stupid. Why then, has Machete achieved an honourable 72 per cent approval rating on rottentomatoes.com and Afterlife a shameful 22 per cent? Machete is more fun and easier to justify to friends, but this alone does not explain such an extreme disparity. Why do we more readily tolerate idiocy when it is accompanied by occasional winks and nudges?
Machete revolves around former Mexican Federale Machete (Danny Trejo), who looks for work in a Texas border town after his family is murdered by a drug lord called Torrez (Steven Segal). After being forced into an assassination plot, he finds himself caught in a struggle between a paramilitary network of Mexican-Americans and a gang of bloodthirsty, racist border vigilantes.
As was likely intended, Machete is bad. Despite the presence of every badass in America, the acting is boring. Robert De Niro exchanges his cartoonish New York accent for a cartoonish Texan accent. Jessica Alba demonstrates that her ineptitude extends to playing immigration officials. Watching Alba curse is like watching a cat bark: not only is it incongruous, it has none of its intended effect. Danny Trejo is as natural as only a man acting in a movie built around him can be. Watching him interact with Alba, one marvels that humanity could produce two such wildly diverse specimens.
Machete is also filled with absurd occurrences with little or no explanation. In the opening scene, a naked woman retrieves a mobile phone from her vagina to make a call. While the naked human body has, admittedly, few better hiding places, the careful observer will note that the woman seems to be in her own house where she might easily set the phone on a dresser.
The titular character’s preference for bladed weapons is never explained; it’s just an endearing quirk like Juno’s hamburger phone. Nor do we ever learn whether he chooses this weapon based on his name or vice versa. What we do learn is that women like moustaches and face scars very much, because nearly every woman in the movie (not one of whom is the least bit plain) puts herself at his disposal almost immediately after meeting him.
Steven Segal, whose recent attempt to matter brings him to the set of Machete, employs his ridiculous Mexican accent in his role as the white, Mexican, katana-wielding drug lord Torrez. Machete’s leading men, in the infrequent occasions on which they speak, do so in a husky baritone whisper, usually accompanied by a single reverberating guitar note. Every line, no matter how mundane, is treated with extreme gravity.
Of course, everything wrong with Machete seems intentional, but does that make it better?
While Machete’s secondary, cliché plot feels calculated, Afterlife’s complete lack of plot feels instinctive, as if the idea of a plot did not occur to anyone involved. For this reason, it is difficult to fault Afterlife for its story the same way it is difficult to fault a book of poetry for having inferior graphics.
Anderson’s transformation of the Resident Evil franchise from game to film is incomplete. The result is a film that feels very little like a film, putting experience and action before story and even composition. The Afterlife cast has a bizarre tendency to pause and stare numbly into space between lines, like characters in a video game cut-scene.
The fights scenes are unoriginal, but occasionally exciting. The pounding electronic soundtrack and 3-D visuals drive these scenes more than choreography or cinematography. The highlight of the fight scenes is Milla Jovovich and Ali Larter’s battle with a massive hammer-wielding zombie in a prison shower room, which is more enjoyable for the zombie’s design than the fight itself.
Machete may feature calculatedly ridiculous events that provoke a barked “ha!” but Afterlife demonstrates the kind of absurdity that only genuine incompetence can produce. In one scene, a dorky-voiced navigation computer screams “Pull up! Terrain! Pull up! Terrain!” at head villain Albert Wesker as his plane crashes into a mountainside.
Presumably, one of Afterlife’s selling points is its women. This is apparent by the frequency with which the female characters manage to soak themselves and their outfits.
Why, then, Larter was chosen to play Claire Redfield is not clear. While pretty, Larter looks horribly out of place in Afterlife, with her Real Housewives hairstyle and constantly visible front teeth — she and Jovovich seem to have been instructed to keep their teeth clenched throughout the movie, while rarely closing their lips.
Afterlife does not make a lot of sense; its cast is cold and boring, and its choreography, cinematography and production design leave much to be desired, but one leaves the cinema feeling that Anderson has done just what he set out to do, whether that was to make a movie as mindless and action-packed as a video game or to make a tremendous amount of money.
While one’s respect for Rodriguez and Maniquis is mitigated by their insistence on simultaneously mocking and appropriating the elements of antique B movies, they demonstrate creativity and talent in stitching together the patchwork of clichés that is Machete. Even at face value, and unlike Afterlife, Machete is an entertaining, if insipid, film.