Danny Trejo kills people in Machete, Patricia Clarkson kills time in Cairo

by Mark Burger

Machete worked better as a trailer than it does as a full-length movie.

Originally conceived as one of the bogus B-movie trailers in the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez latter-day drive-in double-feature

Grindhouse (2007), the concept has been expanded, exploded and imploded into a feature by Rodriguez, who produced, co-directed with Ethan Maniquis, and receives at least a dozen on-screen credits for his contributions, ranging from visual effects to song selections.

Veteran screen tough guy Danny Trejo takes center stage in the title role, a former Federale (Mexican border patrolman) who was set up, betrayed and left for dead. Of course he didn’t die, and years later a series of cartoonish circumstances allows him to exact a long-simmering retribution.

Machete is many things, but it’s not boring.

It is, however, a letdown. Rodriguez seems content to continue paying (big-budget) homage to the low-budget B-movies of his adolescence. In many ways, he’s still replaying bits from El Mariachi, the 1992 debut film that heralded his emergence as a filmmaker.

For all the high-tech gloss and all-star cast, Machete is a self-indulgent, self-satisfied ego trip saturated with gratuitous nudity, gratuitous violence and gratuitous regurgitation. If you’ve seen one vomit joke, you’ve seen them all — and here it seems you see them all.

Somewhere in this mess is a statement about the immigration debate in this country, although its nuances have been buffeted somewhat by the presentation.

Nevertheless, it’s a pleasure to see Trejo in a leading role. He has such a distinctive screen presence and a personality that always stays above the mayhem.

A slumming Robert De Niro leads the film’s resident rogues’ gallery, sporting a hit-or-miss Texas twang (and a quick-check approach) as a corrupt senator with a penchant for murdering illegal immigrants.

Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey, Tom Savini and Shea Wigham sneer and snarl as fellow villains who tend to deliver their threats in smart-aleck comic-book fashion, as does Steven Seagal, in what is probably the most tolerable performance of his entire career. As Machete’s brother-turned-priest, Rodriguez regular Cheech Marin contributes a few laughs before meeting an untimely (and unseemly) end.

The ladies on hand include Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan, all looking fabulous and talking as tough as the male characters do. One of the film’s better running jokes — and one that doesn’t involve bloodshed, vomit or snide dialogue — is that every female character finds Machete irresistible.

Writer/director Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time offers an engaging travelogue of its title city, respectable (and respectful) intentions and nice roles for Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig, but there’s not much to it.

Clarkson plays Juliette, the wife of an American diplomat who is to join her husband in Cairo. When she arrives, however, he’s away on an assignment and she’s left on her own — a stranger in a strange land. Thanks to her husband’s friend, Tareq (Siddig), Juliette gets to know a bit more about the illustrious city, about the Muslim culture there and about Tareq, who’s been a little lonely himself.

What develops between Juliette and Tareq isn’t a relationship in the romantic sense (although the potential is there), but a quick friendship based on their collective isolation. Clarkson and Siddig have an unforced chemistry that makes their characters believable and likable, without ladling on any unnecessary sentiment.

Yet for all its picturesque attributes and the graceful performances of its leads, Cairo Time is a slight film, mildly diverting but none too memorable.

Nevertheless, compared to the recent Sex and the City 2, to which this film bears a slight thematic resemblance, at least Cairo Time doesn’t play the culture clash for easy laughs… or uneasy ones, as in the case of Sex and the City 2.