This review is taken in large part from my cinema review, which can be seen here, with some alterations and new artwork.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s ambitious 70s exploitation throwback project, the double-bill of Death Proof and Planet Terror, was a fairly costly loss to their backing producers, The Weinsteins, only finally beginning to recoup its money after several home format releases. Although critics liked it – and certainly in my review I rated Death Proof as a decent Tarantino flick (with some exceptional stunt sequences) and felt Planet Terror was a watchable piece of gory nonsense – moviegoers clearly weren’t prepared for 3+ hours of the full Grindhouse ‘experience’. As a part of the experiment, both Directors shot a series of fake trailers – for movies that didn’t exist but follow on in the same vein in being throwback exploitation flicks. One of these, arguably the most promising, was for Machete, a violent and totally over-the-top revenge film featuring Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin and Jeff Fahey.
“He’s CIA, FBI, DEA all rolled into one mean burrito!”
Machete, a Mexican ex-Federale with a violent past, is hired to assassinate a snarly, corrupt Senator, who is himself scheming to deport hundreds of illegal immigrants. But after being set up and ambushed, Machete is wounded, left for dead, and framed by the very people who hired him. With the help of a feisty female Immigration Officer, and a couple of old friends – a gun-toting priest and a tough-ass revolutionary chica nicknamed ‘She’ – Machete sets out to uncover the truth behind those that sought to wrong him, and wreak bloody revenge upon them.
Rodriguez always intended for Machete to be a finished film, having written the script back when he was shooting the Antonio Banderas actioner, Desperado, a film which indeed featured a knife-wielding character played by Danny Trejo – obviously the inspiration for Machete. He kept the project on the back-burner, shooting elements from the script for his fake trailer in Grindhouse, before eventually planning to make the movie proper. Funding it through his own Troublemaker Studios, he put together arguably the most eclectic cast of all time – with returning actors from the original trailers: Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin and Jeff Fahey; as well as Jessica Alba, Lindsey Lohan, Don Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro and Steven Seagal. The casting alone makes the movie worth seeing – where else would you get to see Steven Seagal and Robert De Niro in the same film together? And on the Big Screen too! Riding in the wake of the success of Stallone’s equally ensemble 80s throwback action movie, The Expendables, and Piranha 3D’s throwback horror escapade, Machete was certainly a clever gamble, and I’m here to tell you that it paid off.
The film succeeds on several levels, whether as an all-out actioner; a compilation of past-it acting icons either sending up their previous personas, or trying for one last hurrah (take your pick); or a tongue-in-cheek satire of the archetypal (70s) revenge flick. Machete throws a bit of everything into the mix and gets the recipe almost perfect, leaving you, if not loving the experience, then certainly bloody enjoying it.
Right from the get-go it establishes what you should expect from this movie (as if the Trailers ever left anything to doubt), with more gratuitous nudity and gory ultra-violence on offer within the prologue than within the entire runtime of your average modern action movie. And it only gets better from there, as we are introduced to a succession of colourful, engaging villains who first establish just how despicable they are, scheming and sneaking around stabbing people in the back, before being torn apart, one by one, by Machete and his various cohorts. It really is that simple.
And the movie rides a great deal on its star power – even if many of the actors don’t get as much screen time as you would expect/hope from them, they still all get at least their fifteen minutes of fame. Danny Trejo holds it together as the tough-ass protagonist, looking totally at ease within the role: whether sporting a naked girl on each arm, or ripping somebody’s guts out (literally) and using them to rope-jump out of a window. Of course the actor wears his personal history on his sleeve, being himself a hardened ex-con, complete with faded tattoos and old scars, but he also play the part perfectly – serious in his scowling demeanour, but also totally in on the joke.
“Couldn’t you have at least texted me?”
“Machete don’t text.”
I don’t even know where to begin with the other actors. Avatar’s Michelle Rodriguez is both tough and undeniably sexy as the gun-toting revolutionary who helps Machete; Sin City’s Jessica Alba still can’t act worth a damn, but (oddly) gets a more politically-inspired, speech-infused role as a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent who takes a personal interest in Machete’s plight; and Lindsay Lohan continues her trend of refusing to play against type, here as a drug addict who sells her wares through pay-per-view internet sites. There’s even a bit of dialogue about her which clearly refers to her real-life Midas touch on every production she goes near – “that’s the second operation in the last six months I’ve had to close down because of your meddling” she’s told, after being pulled out of a drugs lab where she was scoring dope.
Recent Lost alumni Jeff Fahey puts in a thoroughly enjoyable, knowingly mischievous performance as the Senator’s aide/assassin who dispatches Machete on his mission in the first place; Miami Vice’s Don Johnson gets to ham it up as the weasly leader of a bunch of patriotic vigilantes who patrol the border, shooting ‘illegals’ (and he totally looks like the sunglasses-wearing villain from Cool Hand Luke); returning From Dusk till Dawn supporting actor Tom Savini (he was ‘Sex Machine’) gets a brilliant cameo as a 1-800-dial-an-assassin; and Cheech Marin – who’s been in over half a dozen Rodriguez films – is easily the highlight out of all of them, providing his usual, reliably hilarious performance (albeit an overly short role), this time as the ‘padre’ who doesn’t even bother trying to resist Machete’s call to arms.
“You’re asking me to help you kill all of these people?...I’ll see what I can do.”
You might ask what Robert De Niro is even doing in a film like this, but apparently the once-great method actor (who hasn’t done a truly memorable film in over a decade) agreed to the part because he was refreshed at being able to play a wafer-thin bad guy role, and basically not having to worry about bringing some depth to the role. It’s not that kind of movie, and De Niro knows it, so he just goes along for the ride, imbuing his character with shades of Max Cady, but clearly happy to finally be playing a trashy role in a trashy movie which knows its trashy, rather than all the recent films he’s taken seriously, and which have turned out pretty poor.
Steven Seagal in a Robert De Niro-starring movie? What?? Only in the wildest, most drug-induced delirious dreams of the biggest (and most unrealistically loyal) Seagal fans could anybody even imagine such a thing. Yet here it is. The, erm, big guy is back after a 10 year hiatus from the Big Screen (a decade of making really bad DTV movies – over 20 of them – only about 5 of which are even watchable) and, through a long-term close friendship with the lead actor, Danny Trejo (who has popped up in a couple of Seagal’s movies), managed to get quite a significant part in this film. Sure, his screen-time barely hits double-figures, but he gets second billing, and you can see why. He is both unexpectedly ruthless as the boss villain Torres (surprisingly game, and still capable of some nifty moves with a sword) and ridiculously over-the-top – his final confrontation with Machete one of the most (hopefully intentionally) hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments in the film. It is clear Seagal was in on the joke this time, and, somewhat ironically given his recent film history, his contribution here provides some of the most memorable moments in the movie.
“You know, I could kill you right now very easily... but I know you’ll just be waiting for me in hell.”
The movie’s far from perfect. I’m not talking about visually – its faux grindhouse style, similar to that of both Planet Terror and Death Proof, is intentionally imperfect, but also far more refined and stylish than either of those earlier attempts – obviously Rodriguez has learned from his mistakes. No, the problem doesn’t come from the scratches or jump-cuts, it comes from the lack of cuts. Basically the movie is too long. It’s a lean, 90 minute action movie that has been padded out to an unnecessarily-long 105 minutes. The political storyline is overdone, as if all of the latino-descent members of the cast and crew had some personal stake in making this Mexploitation flick, when, oddly, they would have done it more justice just streamlining it down to the bare-chested-and-bloody necessities. And, on a side note, what was with all that furore about Machete being an (anti)-anti-immigration movie? Did anybody really think this film was going to be offering serious political and social commentary? It’s about as deep as Avatar – but thankfully doesn’t take itself anywhere near as seriously. If you want proof, just wait until you hear Alba cry out – “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
And even the best moments seem to occasionally outstay their welcome: the low-riding hot-rods which use their hydraulics to bounce their way down the road do so for too long; the hilarious mock-promotional campaign ads for the corrupt senator get repeated too much; and however colourful and entertaining the various characters are, there are probably too many of them (many more than are listed above), somewhat diluting the overall result. I enjoyed almost all of the villains, but 6 is still too many; and the girls are great, but there’s too much prominence from Alba’s wafer-thin would-be politically-inspired immigration agent (and even Lohan’s ridiculous druggie whore turned gun-toting faux nun) and not enough from Michelle Rodriguez’s tough (and infinitely hotter than both the above, put together) rebel chica, She.
But it’s easy to forgive Machete its faults because the movie is just so much damn fun, and the frantic final half hour – which attempts to cram in as many shots from the original faux trailer as possible (fans of this will love the way they integrate the trailer scenes into the movie, especially Machete’s seemingly random frolic with two naked women) – is a properly good dose of tongue-in-cheek slaughter. Thankfully the movie never steps into slapstick/parody territory, steering more towards that Hot Fuzz / Shaun of the Dead -style respectful homage, giving us all of the best bits you would normally get out of this kind of 70s/80s generic b-movie, but providing them in an exaggerated, knowingly humorous way. Here the hero’s a tough cop who doesn’t play by the rules, who has his wife killed, is framed and left-for-dead, and who turns into a one-man army, capable of defeating four henchmen with one slice of his blade, or breaking a bad guy’s arm whilst still eating a taco.
Out of all the action-orientated movies that played last year at the cinema, it’s the less heavily-advertised, sleeper outings that have appear to have garnered the best word-of-mouth, like the thinking man’s action thriller, Inception. Personally, all the hype left me massively disappointed with the jumbled, low-budget 80s throwback flick The Expendables, and tired after all the uneventful explosive ‘events’ in the 80s reboot Blockbuster The A-Team. Conversely, Machete succeeds in its low-key expectations – this isn’t an archetypal ‘good’ film, it’s an intentionally tacky, ludicrously over-the-top, hilariously gory faux-exploitation action-movie. It won’t win Awards for any of the ingredients in its heady mix, but it will likely prove a great, unpretentious, unreservedly silly and ultimately, pretty damn fun watch. Recommended.