There are few guilty pleasures as satisfying as a new film from Robert Rodriguez, especially when the director is on top form. Like takeaway hamburgers, his movies are deliciously excessive, mostly interchangeable, and leave you feeling somewhat queasy after you’ve consumed them.
And, like the burgers at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, they come in two varieties: burnt to a crisp or bloody as hell. The unapologetically tacky Machete, starring Danny Trejo as the titular character, falls into the latter category.
Machete is a spin-off from a faux trailer that Rodriguez made for his Grindhouse collaboration with Tarantino. It’s a tribute to the ultraviolent exploitation films of the 1970s and early 1980s, an era of low-budget flicks as heavy on tomato sauce and bare breasts as they were light on artistic pretension.
The plot — if it matters — follows a routine modern Western or cop story template. Machete is a former Mexican federal officer left for dead by the drug lords who murder his wife right in front of him. Three years later he is back for vengeance. Yes, you can see where this is all going even though there is a topical, pro-Mexican immigration slant to the story.
But the difference lies in the execution. Rodriguez is probably the best B-movie filmmaker in town since John Carpenter’s heyday. His films tap into a hankering for the days when action films were cheaper, nastier and yet somehow more innocent than they are today.
Like Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, it lovingly recreates the scratched, burnt-out film stock, the sudden jump cuts, and oddly synchronised speech you’d find in a cult cinema in the days before digital took over.
Rodriguez is as much an unashamed trash merchant as the filmmakers that inspired him, but when he’s at his best, as he is in Machete, he has the verve and panache to pull it off. Unlike Tarantino, who makes movies that are meticulously scripted, filmed and edited, Rodriguez’s films are shot and cut on the fly as quickly as the 1970s B-movies they’re inspired by.
Machete is full of his trademark spontaneity, humour and action. Don’t expect much in the way of subtlety or depth here. Expect over-the-top violence and action — heads splatter like watermelons from close-range shotgun blasts, lopped limbs fly across the screen, eyes are poked out with every sharp object imaginable, and in one memorable scene, intestines provide an improvised bungee cord.
Also expect lingering, iconic shots of Trejo and his ice-cold tough-girl allies (played by Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez) scowling and fondling their weapons. In fact, ‘’because it looks cool,” is the answer to just about any question you can ask about anything in Machete. Narrative logic seldom even enters into the equation.
Rodriguez has a lot of fun with his casting, reviving a number of career-dead actors for key roles in the film. Steven Seagal — 1980s martial arts action star turned blimpish self-parody — is Machete’s drug-lord nemesis. Don Johnson — the former Miami Vice star — and B-movie veteran Jeff Fahey get rare opportunities to chew some scenes as in their outrageously villainous parts.
And appropriately, washed-up teen star Lindsay Lohan has a few scenes as Fahey’s drug-addicted, online porn-making daughter. Robert De Niro as a politician running on an anti-immigration ticket is possibly the actor that looks most out of place in the Machete.
The film really belongs to the hulking, blade-wielding Trejo as Machete. He slices, dices, chops, severs, skulks, seduces, glares and growls, but “Machete don’t text”. Seemingly two metres tall, tapestried with tattoos and crisscrossed with scars, the Rodriguez veteran is a screen-filling presence, one of the most credible action heroes since Ahnuld stubbed out his cigar and hung up his bandoliers.
Machete trailer (contains violence and strong language):
With a running time of 100 minutes, Machete runs 15 minutes longer than it should. And there are moments where Rodriguez looks low on inspiration. Many scenes in the film are recycled from Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, themselves retreads of his debut El Mariachi.
But to be honest, who cares? Machete is the throwback to the days before action films were neutered for PG-ratings and PC points we’d hoped to find in The Expendables or Predators. Gloriously dumb, lurid, and cartoonish, it’s as welcome as greasy junk food in a steady diet of green salads and steamed chicken breasts. — Lance Harris, TechCentral