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.
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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  and Planet Terror ) 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 ) 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.