Nobody could ever accuse Robert Rodriguez of sticking to a single genre. After getting his start on the low-budget indie flick El Mariachi, documented in his autobiography Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, Rodriguez has gone on to direct a variety of genre pics including horror flick The Faculty, pre-Twilight vampire schlock From Dusk Til Dawn, a series of children’s movies including Spy Kids and more recently the comic-book adaptation Sin City. The man diversifies.
One of his more successful collaborations has been with Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), with From Dusk Til Dawn, Sin City and on 2007’s Grindhouse, a 70s throwback compilation of Tarantino’s terrible Death Proof and Rodriguez’s schlocky but pitch-perfect Planet Terror. One of the best features of the double-bill are the fake trailers between the films, for such never-made-classics as Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving, Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS and Edgar Wright’s brilliant Don’t. Of course, the one that looked the most like a real picture was Machete, Rodriguez’s own contribution to the exploitation genre. During the production of that film, Rodriguez shot stills for lobby cards and made plans for an expanded version of the film for the DVD release of Grindhouse. However, we are forever grateful that this has been released theatrically in Australia as part of the Fantastic Planet Film Festival.
The deadly Machete (Danny Trejo, Predators) is an ex-Federale betrayed by the organisation he is working for. After his wife and child are killed at the hands of the nefarious Torrez (Steven Seagal), Machete finds himself an illegal immigrant in the United States. Befriending the beautiful Luz (Michelle Rodriguez, Avatar), food vendor with connections to the Network that aids Mexican immigrants, and watched by the equally beautiful Federal Agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba, The Killer Inside Me), Machete soon finds himself in trouble when he is approached by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey, Grindhouse) with a special job. Hired to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro, Everybody’s Fine), a politician campaigning on the border control ticket, Machete is double-crossed and is chased by both sides of the law.
Machete is pure over-the-top brilliance. Sharing a directorial credit with editor Ethan Maniquis, Rodriguez takes all that is good and bad about the exploitation genre and pitches it all at us at the same time. Machete would make you feel guilty if you weren’t laughing hysterically at the sheer fun of it. The word ‘subtle’ was clearly not bandied about in preparation for this film, with more bloodletting in the first five minutes than an average day at the donor bank. Clearly inspired by the grindhouse films of the 1970s and 1980s, Rodriguez is also returning to his roots and pulling out a few tricks that we haven’t seen since Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Like the Mariachi, Machete is a one-man army, casually decapitating a perp with his razor-sharp namesake but not before taking some time out to have a threesome with Lindsay Lohan and Alicia Rachel Marek in a swimming pool. He’s James Bond south of the border. About the time Machete uses the innards of a bad guy to abseil down the side of a hospital building, you have to be either totally committed to this or ready to go back to the suburbs.
What is most surprising is that this film has a political voice as well. Although grossly exaggerating the picture from both sides, Machete is a satire (or at least a parody) of the US-Mexico relations along the border, especially the good ol’ boy attitude of Texas. Robert De Niro is clearly enjoying himself playing the conservative politician who doesn’t mind mixing it with the bad guys in order to further his career. A few none-too-subtle (there’s that word again) digs can be found when his character draws comparisons between illegal immigrants and terrorism, and this exaggerated portrayal allows this discussion to happen in the context of schlock cinema. Of course, behind the caricatures and laughs there is a very real issue that is just as familiar to Australia’s border patrol obsessed culture as it is to the United States bordering Mexico. Although the script adds very little to the debate, it gives the film a knowing smile that alleviates our guilt over laughing at the umpteenth exploding head.
Danny Trejo seems to be in just about everything at the moment, with a quick search indicating he’s made almost two dozen on-screen performances this year alone, with at least as many slated for 2011. Often given bit parts in other people’s films, his chance to shine as the hero here is not wasted, with the muscular 66 year old (!) actor wearing his entire life’s experience on his sleeve here and is clearly revelling the opportunity to cavort with some of the hottest women in the business. In a cast peppered with Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan (virtually playing herself as a drug-addled daughter of money), Trejo is one ex-con who has done well for himself. Steven Seagal also seems to enjoy being back in a feature after years of direct-to-DVD cheapies, hamming his way through various readings of pendejo.
Machete may only get a limited release here in Australia, with an expected cult second life on DVD and Blu-ray, but it deserves to be one of the biggest hits of the year. Aside from the fact that it is the perfect antidote to an increasingly disappointing series of bloated Michael Bay-style actioners at the cinemas, we may not get a line as good as “Machete don’t text” again this year. Or ever.
Machete is released in Australia on November 11 from Sony Pictures Australia.
Director: Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis | Starring: Danny Trejo, Rober De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan | Runtime: 124 minutes | Rating: MA15+