Wednesday 15 September 2010

Machete (2010)

Directors: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis
Stars: Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Daryl Sabara, Shea Whigham, Don Johnson, Jessica Alba and Robert De Niro

If Resident Evil: Afterlife was the worst movie I've seen in months, then Machete was the best. No, that's not fair, because 'best' implies qualities that you don't find in movies like this, which carry no delusions whatsoever of being great cinema. The Seventh Seal this ain't. Let's just say that Machete surpasses its origins as a rather popular fake movie trailer in Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's 1997 homage to the exploitation flicks they adore, to become the most consistently enjoyable and outrageously entertaining film of the year. Just take a look at that amazing cast! Most are Robert Rodriguez regulars but there are surprising additions too. Steven Seagal's debut as a villain after a couple of decades as a hero shows why he should have been a villain all along, Don Johnson is so unrecognisable he warrants an 'introducing' credit and Robert De Niro has a comedic field day as a racist and opportunist US senator.

Best of all, there's Danny Trejo at the top of the bill. How long have we waited for that sight, cool indie short films like Cowboy Dreams excluded? When I was watching Steven Seagal movies in the nineties, I was wishing they were Danny Trejo movies. Yet every time he managed to get screen time it seemed that directors were hell bent on using it to kill him off, often in the first few scenes and even when they were made by his second cousin, Robert Rodriguez. I'd honestly given up hope of seeing him as a lead, given that he was 63 years old when he made the fake Machete trailer and 66 by the time it became a real film. He's no spring chicken and he doesn't look like one, but he still moves better at 66 than I do at 39, which perhaps explains why he gets to get jiggy with Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan in the same movie, carve half the cast up with a machete and leap out of a window using a assassin's intestine as a rope.

As you might imagine, there are many words that might describe Machete but 'subtle' sure ain't one of 'em. While it raises many topical points about Hispanic immigration into the US, it does so through comedy rather than real social comment, even though it's played straight. Most often described as Mexploitation, this is roughly akin to an Hispanic take on blaxploitation but could be better seen as a modern day spaghetti western set on the Tex Mex border, character names like Django and Sartana helping to underline that connection. Trejo may not bring a heck of a lot of nuance to Machete, but then Franco Nero or Richard Roundtree didn't to Django or Shaft either. He certainly sets out on the right foot to add himself to the annals of iconic exploitation anti-heroes as a tough Mexican federale, literally driving into a building to rescue a kidnapped girl who he finds buck naked. 'What's this long hard thing?' she asks? 'My machete,' he replies.

Yes, that's how serious this is intended to be, even when Machete discovers that his boss is in Steven Seagal's pocket and so the kidnapped girl, who isn't quite what she seems and has a cunningly concealed phone, is shot dead and he's left in the building while Mexican drug lord Torrez burns the place down with flamethrowers. Naturally our hero escapes, surfacing three years later in Texas as an illegal immigrant looking for work as a day labourer, perhaps the first homeless exploitation hero since Rowdy Roddy Piper as Nada in They Live. However it only takes a couple of minutes to realise that the subtlety of that film is replaced by the sheerest blatancy here as the Mexicans are all good guys (except for the big bad drug lord villain of the piece) and the Americans are all bad guys (except for those Americans who are really Mexicans deep down inside and just need a little time to remember that fact).
Let me introduce you to the characters so you can see for yourself. Robert De Niro is Sen John McLaughlin (not the guitarist from the Mahavishnu Orchestra), who campaigns for re-election on an extreme anti-immigration platform far beyond anything his near namesake, Arizona Sen John McCain, has ever come up with. McCain may be for tough border controls but McLaughlin wants an electrified border fence to keep the parasites and terrorists out, his words. He describes himself as 'a hardliner against wetbacks' and he isn't above going beyond mere rhetoric either, happily shooting an unarmed illegal dead at the border, ensuring that the event is captured on film so he can circulate the footage to his most generous backers. Yet he's the one inconsistent character in the film, because he's a sneaky opportunist willing to do anything to get what he wants, while everyone else believes in what they're doing and why, whether good guys or bad.

His aide is Michael Booth, a peach of a role for Jeff Fahey, who has to kowtow to both McLaughlin and Torrez, who provides a good deal of the campaign's money. Yes, the racist senator is funded by Mexican drug money, which is all explained in terms that may be consistent but would make a conspiracy theorist blush. Booth is more akin to Torrez in his ruthlessness, lusting after his own daughter and setting up a hit on his own candidate to further his odds. Both Booth and Torrez are slime to Von Jackson, a border vigilante who gave McLaughlin his camera opportunity. He's hardly a nice guy (when he shoots a pregnant woman, he highlights that 'if it's born here, it's a citizen'), but he does what he does out of patriotism rather than evil intent, a cool as ice villain hiding behind his sunglasses like a combination of CSI: Miami's Horatio Caine and Boss Godfrey, 'the man with no eyes' from Cool Hand Luke. Don Johnson is surprisingly good as Jackson.

On the other side of things is a network unimaginatively called the Network, which helps illegal immigrants to find work and get hospital treatment from hot twin nurses in short uniforms. And here was I, doing it all legally. I never got that when I went through the system! Who do I sue? Michelle Rodriguez plays Luz, who runs the Network out of a roach coach, all high principles and common decency. In this border town, every illegal immigrant is a hard worker denied an opportunity by the Man but given one by the Network and they all turn out fine. All the crime is run by American businessmen funded by Mexican drug money. Luz has principles, as does Agent Sartana, an ICE agent in the lovely form of Jessica Alba, who apparently spends most of her time watching Luz but not actually seeing anything go down. Sartana is an idealist who believes in the system, that the law is just and everyone gets a fair deal. She gets a wake up call here!
Where everything ties together is when Booth hires Machete to hit Sen McLaughlin, thinking he's just another illegal immigrant he can use as a patsy. Of course it's a setup but it's also a huge mistake and the film is an action porn explosion from that starting point. From then on we get thrown everything that made exploitation cinema great: sex, violence and quotable dialogue. There's so much of the latter that Rodriguez could make a dozen effective trailers without ever reusing dialogue. 'We didn't cross the border,' cries Sartana. 'The border crossed us!' Luz points out: 'The system doesn't work. It's broken. So we made our own.' Machete keeps his lines short and sweet. 'Machete don't text,' may be my favourite. Also, as befits an obvious attempt to codify the Mexploitation genre, nobody eats anything but Mexican food, even the racists, and every colourful description is a Mexican food reference, the whole enchilada.

The sex is plentiful but shown through gratuitous nudity rather than lengthy sex scenes. Just as I'm happy to see Trejo in the lead, I'm also happy I don't have to see him get down and dirty with the ladies. His most blaxploitation inspired scene is when he visits Booth's house. After he takes down the bodyguards, he finds Booth's daughter April and his wife June naked in the pool getting ready to shoot a internet video. Naturally he joins them before he kidnaps them though the Isaac Hayes soundtrack you hear is only playing in your head. Lindsey Lohan effectively plays herself as April, a neat send up of her own image, but while she does spend most of her part naked that doesn't mean you're going to get to see too much. She'll need to work hard to outdo her scenes late on in this movie. If there's a complaint on the sex side, it's that we could do with more of Jessica Alba but then that would apply if this was a ninety minute movie of her in the shower.

Mostly there's violence, as Trejo finally gets to live up to the name of his character. He's played a lot of characters in a lot of Rodriguez films and almost all of them are named after weapons. He was Machete in the Spy Kids trilogy as well as this film and the trailer in Grindhouse, Razor Charlie in the From Dusk Till Dawn movies, Navajas in Desperado and Cuchillo in Predators. If you don't know what navajas and cuchillos are, just do a Google Image search and you'll get to see something like the inside of Machete's jacket in this movie. There's as much machete work as you might imagine, ending with a twin machete versus twin samurai sword duel with Steven Seagal, but there's much more than that. Machete works the props in this movie, from cleavers to nailguns, meat thermometers to garden shears, even memorable work with a weedwhacker. He gets progressively beaten up as time goes by but continues on like the Energizer Bunny.
It isn't just Trejo either, because everyone gets to cause violent devastation in this movie. Where else can you go to see a man killed by one of those pimped out Mexican lowriders that bounce up and down like some sort of mad alligator head? Cheech Marin gets to demonstrate how well he can wield twin shotguns and he's a priest. Tom Savini is a hitman who's so sure about himself that he even has a commercial and a customised phone number: 1-800-HITMAN. Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, who co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed, really pull out the stops to ensure that this is as Mexploitation as it gets. They throw everything but the kitchen sink into this movie and that's only because that's an English expression. Everything is Hispanic, though naturally a very stylised Hispanic. There's even an ice cream cart in the final battle demonstrating that like blaxploitation movies, this would be racist if made by someone not of the appropriate ethnicity.

Trejo is great but while he's top billed as the title character, he doesn't get any more screen time than the rest of the ensemble cast who share it so evenly that it often seems like their minutes were divided mathematically. Everyone has a riot with their roles, including De Niro who took the part of McLaughlin after Chris Cooper turned it down because the script was 'the most absurd thing I've ever read.' Marin may be the most memorable and Rodriguez the most fleshed out but Seagal is the most surprising. He relishes his villainy and is gifted with an amazing death scene that everyone has been waiting for since 1988. He finally puts his whisper to good use too, to hide his lack of a Mexican accent, and while he plays a Mexican drug lord he reminded me of nobody less than Han from Enter the Dragon, so I kept looking for his metal hand. Maybe that'll be in the sequel, because there must be one, even if those announced at the end are jokes.

Rodriguez has been planning Machete since Desperado in 1995 and he won't let go of such a beloved character lightly. The idea came up when he first met Danny Trejo, thinking that 'this guy should be like the Mexican Jean-Claude Van Damme or Charles Bronson, putting out a movie every year and his name should be Machete.' He would come in when the authorities couldn't take care of business, for whatever reason, and get the job done for what would be a bargain price in the States but a fortune in Mexico. The end of the film plays up his status as a mythical figure, a great pulp anti-hero in an era when we need more such creatures. The only problem is that it's so well fitted to Trejo that we'll probably only end up with whatever can be slotted in amongst all Rodriguez's other myriad projects. Trejo is 66 so can only play the action hero for so much longer. I just hope he gets as much opportunity as is humanly possible.

1 comment:

Shaun said...

The year that Machete came out was the same year as the Expendables, I think this movie had just as much star power as that movie did, and definitely more gore, and more action. So I think we still came out on the winning end of that. Do they have the meanest looking guy in Film? No they have Sylvester Stallone, although creepy looking, not mean looking. This will go down as one of my favorite gore flicks of all time, well put together, and bloody. Working at DISH I like to surf the website looking for good deals, and since I subscribe to Blockbuster by mail already, this caught my eye, right now new Dish customers are eligible for 3 free months of blockbuster by mail. Check it out at