Machete, starring Danny Trejo

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Exploitation movies don’t get much more deliriously exploitative than pulpy auteur Robert Rodriguez’s high-octane tribute to grindhouse cinema, Machete, co-directed by his long-time collaborator Ethan Maniquis.

Grindhouse is a genre celebrated for its so-bad-it’s-kinda-good blends of gratuitous nudity, laughably unrealistic gore and shonky plotlines perfect for late night thrill seekers – the sort of crowd whose measurement of film appreciation is roughly calculated by the amount of whooping exhaled per minute.

It’s also perfectly disgusting feel good fun for the upbeat down’n’dirty gallows humour of Rodriguez, who has a couple of grindhouse notches already etched on his snakeskin belt (From Dusk Till Dawn [1996] and Planet Terror [2007]) and others that have dabbled in the genre’s blood-tainted honey pots (the Desperado series).

In his first starring role, rough-as-guts Hollywood hard man Danny Trejo – a walk-on veteran with more than 200 movies to his name – is perfectly cast as yeti-like Mexican killing machine Machete Cortez (guess what his favourite weapon is?) whose already cranky disposition is exacerbated when he watches his family get butchered in the film’s opening reel.

A few years later Machete is recruited (read: blackmailed) to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) a conservative politician running on an election platform consisting entirely of a hard-line stance on border control. But the job is a set up; a ploy to get the senator sympathy votes and take him to number one on the ballot box (with a bullet). Machete goes on the run and a team of soon-to-be chopped meat baddies led by Torrez (Steven Seagull – one many irresistible turns of casting) chase and try to kill him, unaware that they’re up against a modern taco munching equivalent of Zeus with a headache.

Machete is a Mexican Harry Brown mingled with Death Wish on steroids and told with the junky charm of unpretentious slash and burn entertainment. Crucially, it has the sharpness and flair of a director who, when he hits his stride, can be fabulously stylistic, and here Rodriguez is at the top of his game.

The action sequences carry a hint of Peter Jackson’s early work (Braindead, Bad Taste) in their embrace of harebrained delirium and cavalier SFX, closer to Play-Doh than CGI.
In one scene a character grabs onto another’s lower intestine and falls out a hospital window, still clutching it.

Trejo, whose weather-beaten face tells a thousand tequila-soaked stories, is not so much acting as personifying a force of nature. He’s 
joined by a corker supporting cast: Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Tom Savini, De Niro, Seagull and – most memorably – Cheech Marin as a blunt-smoking shotgun-wielding priest who secretly videotapes confessions.

Everybody gets a run in the sun in Machete’s magnificent wrap-up, for which the words “action packed” just don’t cut it. Watching a heavily armed Lindsay Lohan, right after her nudie scene, dressed in a nuns outfit, staring down her enemy…it’s madness, and Rodriguez and Maniquis’ rampant mixture of sacrilege, blood and gore and fun-filled death-riddled mayhem will inevitably send directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Australia’s Brian Trenchard-Smith into tizzies of excitement.

Audiences may (and should) sit down expecting crazy entertainment, but they probably won’t expect a slashing pace and an unrelenting screenplay of razor (machete?) sharp dialogue full of innuendo, double meaning and downright sass. Boasting about a rifle with a special high-powered laser scope, one of the characters describes its range: “you can shoot the pecker off a mosquito at a thousand yards – and keep the balls unruffled.” Line upon line of borderline absurdist pinpoint dialogue compliments the film’s staccato rhythm. It isn’t easy to make something as entertaining and fast-witted as this; in fact it’s damn hard. There’s a lot of cinematic sayonaras in Machete but there isn’t a dead minute in it.

It’s not just grindhouse but grindhouse as social allegory – a commentary on America’s infatuation with the border control debate, a serious point 
made amid outrageous eccentricity and one that Australia – thank you Tony Abbott and your “stop the boats” BS – can certainly relate to.

Rodriguez, a pop culture junkie of the Tarantino gen, has with Maniquis’ co-direction exemplified in a movie that began as a piss-take (spawning from a phoney trailer in the curious experiment Grindhouse [2007]) what post-modern filmmaking is all about: drawing attention to conventions without over-weening the distinction between old and new and folding together an experience that works on its own merits but couldn’t have been made without a rich – in this case often thoroughly dodgy – history preceding it.
Under the banner of “bad” movies the challenge was to make a good one. Rodriguez and Maniquis didn’t just achieve that. They made a great one.

Machete’s Australian theatrical release date: November 11, 2010.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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