By G. Michael Dobbs
This week, two homages to the classic exploitation film of the 1970s and the 1990s incarnation of a classic hero are featured in this edition of the DVD review column.
I taught classes on film history for many years at Western New England College and, if I was teaching still, I'd definitely use this film as a way to showcase the enduring elements of an exploitation film.
Character actor Danny Trejo's star turn as a vengeance seeking Mexican cop is a textbook example of the genre, although its budget is many times larger than the exploitation films of the 1970s.
"Exploitation" describes a movie that uses an easily promoted element or elements to sell it to audiences. Those elements include topical political or social issues, sex, violence, horror or an actor with a certain level of notoriety.
Many of the classic Warner Brothers films of the 1930s, such as, "I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" and the gangster films those movies that were sold with the line "Torn from the headlines!" are very much exploitation films.
By the 1970s, the films in drive-ins and inner city theaters were frequently low budget affairs that attracted an audience with a hook of some sort and director Robert Rodriquez of "Machete" understands that perfectly.
His movie tells the story of how this left-for-dead Mexican cop emerges years later as an illegal day laborer in Texas. His fellow illegal aliens are being hunted at the border literally by a group of vigilantes encouraged by a state senator played with gusto by Robert DeNiro. The cop, known only as Machete, is used as a patsy by the senator's re-election campaign in a faked assassination attempt.
All of this political intrigue is played out in outrageously violent terms with Machete and other Mexican immigrants as the only people with any morality.
So take a topical subject illegal immigration mix it with violence they don't call him "Machete" for nothing and add it to completely gratuitous sex and nudity. The result is an exploitation film that matches the best of the 1970s.
The casting of the film adds to the exploitation pedigree. Trejo, a dependable and popular character actor, is great as the lead. DeNiro fulfilled the role of the veteran name actor who popped up in the drive-in movies of the 1970s. Rodriquez even was savvy enough to include someone truly notorious in his cast, Lindsay Lohan. Lohan is in a throwaway role that includes nudity that a body double performs a classic 1970s ploy.
Another venerable casting ploy is to take a guy known for playing heroes and make him the bad guy. In this film, that position is filled by veteran action star Stephen Seagal.
I wished there were more extras on the DVD, as I would have loved to have seen a making-of feature.
While this film is probably an acquired taste, I hope the two sequels promised at the end of the film actually come to fruition, but only if they are as outrageous and successful as this first film.
This 3-D remake of the classic Joe Dante exploitation film from 1978 has more gore and more nudity than Dante's original and lacks the edge of political/social criticism.
The DVD I reviewed was flat, but like many 3-D movies, there are plenty of scenes which one could see exploited the 3-D technology.
Having any film in 3-D makes it an exploitation film, as the current 3-D process is the gimmick to draw audiences into theaters.
Elizabeth Shue plays the sheriff of a small lake resort town, which copes with an influx of college students for spring break every year. Unfortunately, an earthquake opens an underground lake beneath the town's chief attraction, releasing thousands of prehistoric piranha.
The fish have survived for millions of years by eating each other and now they have the chance to feast on college students. They don't waste a moment.
The best word to describe this movie is "gratuitous." Director Alexandre Aja, like any exploitation director, doesn't let the illogical story elements stand in his way. When in doubt, show a topless college girl or have someone's head explode.
The gore is so over the top it ascends to the level of a Monty Python routine. Certainly, there is little emotional connection with the characters. Instead, watching this film is like riding a roller coaster. It provides a thrill and a lot of laughter, but is completely forgettable.
This isn't a film for the easily offended or faint of heart, but is part of a continuing trend of honoring the low budget films of over 30 years ago.
Zorro: The Complete Series
Zorro has proven to be an enduring pop culture institution, from his introduction to audiences through pulp magazines adventures first published in 1919 to the lavish last two movies starring Antonio Banderas. The character has not only thrilled generations of audiences, but inspired comic book heroes such as Batman.
Now, all four years of the Family Channel 1990s "Zorro" series are presented in a five DVD set that comes with some impressive extras, including a nice print of the first Zorro film starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., from 1920.
This Zorro was played by the very capable Duncan Regehr and it's a shame the scripts and the production values weren't a little better. Regehr was packing the gear to be an action hero, but the half-hour format and the unimpressive set for the town of Los Angeles undermined his acting efforts.
Still, this is very safe entertainment for all members of the family and younger viewers might be more tolerant of the series' flaws.
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