Thursday 25 January 2018

From the archive: "Machete"

The trailer for Machete - once Robert Rodriguez's outlandish idea of a B-movie spoof, now a marginally less outlandish reality - got 2007's Planet Terror, the better half of the Tarantino-engineered Grindhouse double-bill, off to an appreciably lively start. The full feature lands among us as a vehicle for the craggy Danny Trejo - one of modern cinema's great faces - as a vengeful ex-Federale driven out of his native Mexico by the corrupt bosses and politicos who've chopped his beloved wife in half to boot. Relocating as an illegal across the border in Texas, he soon finds himself recruited as the fall guy in a staged assassination attempt designed to raise the profile of a good-ol'-boy senator spouting anti-immigration rhetoric (Robert DeNiro, in one of his more committed slums); fortunately, he has his trusted machete on hand to cut through his enemies' bullshit. And their skulls. And their throats.

We're dealing with knowing trash here, of course, and with that the attendant sense of intelligence being put to waste, fun being firmly corralled between quotation marks. Yet Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis turn themselves over wholeheartedly to the creation of gory spectacle. You know that bit in Die Hard where Bruce Willis abseils from one floor of the skyscraper to another with the aid of a firehose? Well, Machete goes one further by having Trejo pull off the same manoeuvre with the aid of one adversary's large intestine. The correct response to all this excess may be Shea Whigham's exasperated onscreen eyeroll upon seeing yet another of his goons being rent asunder by Machete's blade - but having that gesture within the film counts for something, and elsewhere, the belief grows that Rodriguez is attempting at least mildly clever and subversive activity within this limited framework.

Take the sequence where news of the failed assassination filters through in shots of Mexican immigrants cooking and cleaning and doing the jobs nobody north of the border wants to do, or the later scene in which one of the antagonists explains how a truly free market would necessitate open borders - the kind of point more usually aired on Newsnight, here pushed (or growled) by Jeff Fahey, while Tom Savini is busy nailing Cheech Marin to a cross. It is, then, a contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding America's relationship with its neighbours, albeit one couched in pulpy B-movie terms: punchy dialogue (encompassing everything from Trejo's taut "Machete don't text" to Fahey's encomium to an especially precise assault rifle: "You can shoot the pecker off a mosquito at a thousand yards, and keep the balls unruffled"), regular eruptions of vomit, violence and nudity, hell, even Steven Seagal - who presumably turned down The Expendables for this, thus proving himself cannier than first thought - making the move into pudgy villainy he should have made a decade ago.

The carapace of irony, bulletproof but burdensome, gets it only so far, and you may find yourself wearying of Machete going into its final act; one problem with these expensive, studio-derived B-pictures is their tendency to overcomplicate the simple pleasures of this form, principally by recruiting too many characters to run screaming across the screen. Rodriguez hardly reins in his propensity for novelty casting, either. In ethnic terms, there's a certain logic in casting Jessica Alba as the immigration agent who eventually comes round to our hero's side, but I don't think anybody's convinced she's spent too much time in the Academy; her rousing final-act speech ("We didn't cross the border - the border crossed us!") is laughable in all the wrong ways, and watching her make out with Trejo is perhaps only Danny Trejo's idea of a good time.

Throughout, the attitude towards women is problematic, bordering on the Latin. We get something of a twofer in the return of Lindsay Lohan as Fahey's daughter, an aspirant starlet most often observed semi-clad and out of her head on the floors of successive ne'er-do-wells. (And yes, I checked the end credits: any resemblance to any living persons really was entirely coincidental.) Still, you could hardly accuse the film of dwelling long or hard on its own scuzziness, and even the finale - a sort-of Planet Terror rerun, stocking an industrial park deep with hardware - offers the value-for-money sight of Lohan in a nun's habit going after DeNiro disguised as a migrant, and the prospect of a colossal swordfight between Trejo and Seagal. If it's still ultimately less fun than we might have expected going in, even Rodriguez-signed trash abounds with more energy and bright ideas - and a greater understanding (however cartoonish) of the wider world - than Tarantino has summoned forth in fully fifteen years now.

(November 2010)

Machete plays on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.10am.   

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