dir: Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis
[img_assist|nid=1320|title=He can jump your mum's border anytime|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=300]
Like Oscar the Grouch, I, occasionally, love trash. Love it to death. Robert Rodriguez makes some exceptionally trashy flicks. Some I hate, some I love, and the more enjoyable ones are pure, much adulterated trash.
Sin City, Planet Terror and this latest visual and aural amoral atrocity are flicks of his that I’ve greatly, greatly enjoyed. Why? Why these ones and not his parade of other flicks that either bored or actively irritated me? I mean, in all honesty, is there really much of a difference between this and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which I loathed? Gratuitous violence? Too many characters? Gore on tap?
Yes, yes and yes. And add to that the immensely transparent agenda of arguing against the exploitation and demonisation of so-called illegal immigrants who stream across the border from Mexico desperate for a better life, and you have a live action ‘contemporary issues’ cartoon with a protagonist who is the meanest looking Mexican ever to star in a motion picture made in this part of the galaxy.
Danny Trejo, I’m certain, is probably a nice guy. He’s could probably be a devoted father, loving husband, hugger of puppies, feeder of kittens, helper of little old ladies across the street. The thing is, though, looking the way he does, he looks like he would do unspeakable things to your corpse even if you didn’t look at him funny. As such, he’s played a bad motherfucker in thousands of flicks to date. Not only that, he is a bad motherfucker who spent much of his life in prison way before prison movies made being in prison look cool. Asking him to play a murderous badass, when he is a murderous badass, is cheating, in a way.
Still, there’s something to be said for an actor being perfect for a role. Ignoring the fact that he was in the parody trailer for Machete back when it was just a wee little pseudo-trailer between the two movies that constituted Grindhouse (being Death Proof and Planet Terror) back in the day, there’s no-one else on the planet that would look more apt for this character. I wouldn’t say it’s iconic, but if you were looking to give any other of the 6 billion people on the planet the role, well, it just wouldn’t work, would it?
Trejo plays, surprisingly enough, a guy called Machete. A former Mexican cop, whom they call a federale, he is introduced to us racing to save some girl who’s apparently been kidnapped. Machete Cortez, surprisingly enough, carries around a machete, and kills a bunch of guys just before he thinks he’s saved a very naked girl.
This girl is so very naked. She is so naked, that when she needs to make a phonecall on her mobile, we don’t have to wonder long as to where she was carrying it, because we see her extract it. Not to elaborate too much, but the main Big Bad is introduced, a vile strange-o called Torrez (played perplexingly by Steven Seagal, yes, THAT bloated, toupee-wearing Seagal) who speaks with the worst Mexican accent since Charlton Heston played a Mexican in Touch of Evil, and just for good measure he kills Machete’s wife in front of him while taunting him ever so meanly.
It’s not clear how Machete survives this introduction, but it’s also important to register that this intro is shot, edited, titled and scratched up deliberately to look like, you guessed it, a grindhouse flick from the 70s. The thing is, though, it’s less a parody or spoof of violent exploitation flicks from the 70s, rather than just a violent trashy action flick with race war overtones.
Let’s be serious: Rodriguez’s flicks all look like this, regardless of where they’re set or what they’re about, which is why this looks like (and even cribs scenes from) Planet Terror and Desperado and Once / Mexico, down to the really cheap CGI that Rodriguez does himself in his garage.
I say this only because I saw Machete at around the same time as Black Dynamite, which was a recent clear and unabashed spoof of blaxploitation flicks from the 60s and 70s, and the one is not the same as the other (though they’re calling this a mexploitation flick, naturally). All the moments, the way it’s filmed, the lunkheaded dialogue and the actors looking up at the boom mike as it’s being lowered into frame makes Black Dynamite a very different enterprise commenting on an earlier time, whereas Machete might seem to combine similar elements, but is really all about two things: looking badass and contemporary racial problems in the United States.
There’s more emphasis on the former visually, obviously, but the latter takes up much of the dialogue and the action. A transparently racist Texan senator (Robert De Niro, slumming it and loving it), who also kills Mexicans for sport along with his Minutemen-like border patrol cohorts, is marked for assassination by a mysterious and creepy man called Booth (Jeff Fahey). Booth hires Machete to take out the senator, but everything seems to go wrong, Machete becomes a wanted man, and then dozens of people on the side of the immigrants, and the other bunch of people who hate the so-called illegals, basically snipe at each other literally and verbally until there’s a Mexicans versus Racists battle at the end.
Throughout, Machete strides around doing brutal things to people in order to protect himself and to get revenge. Probably the nastiest thing he does is use a henchman’s intestines to rappel out of a hospital window. I wish I was making that up. Machete grunts his way through very spare dialogue, some lines being no longer than a word or two long, has sex with every woman in the movie, which includes Jessica Alba as an immigration law enforcement agent, Michelle Rodriguez as the leader of a Latino underground network, a drug-addled and mostly naked Lindsey Lohan as Booth’s daughter, her mother, and a passing bus of catholic schoolgirls.
He usually uses his, um, machete to take most of his enemies out, but he also likes using racially significant tools at his disposal as well. Whenever he attack’s Booth’s henchmen at his house, he uses the tools of the trade most associated with the Hispanic underclass of labourers: gardening and landscaping tools. In other scenes, members of the Network, regardless of all the guns and rocket launchers at their disposal, use the other tools of their trades, being kitchen utensils and building tools. It’s not very subtle, but it is effective.
Pointing out further the tremendous abundance of plot holes or inconsistencies, the sheer cheapness or loopiness that is on display, and the cheesy trashiness of the whole endeavour is the wrong tack to take, simply because we’re talking about a director who, in one of his recent films, has a woman with a machinegun / rocket launcher in place of her amputated leg, shoot an explosive at the ground in order to propel herself over a high wall, before shooting a dozen zombies and alighting gracefully on the ground. Machete does the same stuff in an even more over the top fashion, but with a far more noble purpose, apparently.
It’s also pointless to get down into the nitty-gritty regarding the politics of the piece. For every point Rodriguez or his characters make regarding the humanist versus anti-immigrant stuff, there’s an element that undercuts the preachiness and basically devalues whatever they’re trying to say. For all that it consumes the whole flick with its purpose, it’s treated in a fairly superficial manner, and the ultimate plot resolution puts the lie to the complexities of the debate. Of course right-wing nutjobs saw this flick as a provocation, as a threat, but it’s far tamer and far less confrontational than you’d think.
After they’ve received a severe but not fatal beatdown at Machete’s hands, a group of Booth’s henchmen sit around discussing in their artless way the plight of the illegal immigrant; that Americans are happy to have them working in their kitchens, tending their lawns, looking after their kids, parking their cars, but they don’t want them becoming citizens. Well, if these lunheads can see the disparity, surely so can those most passionate in the anti camp surely can see it, too?
Is the flick fun, in the end? Sure, I guess. For all its cheap nastiness, it has bravura moments that gave me chills despite my knowing how wrong and unearned they were. When Jessica Alba, an actress never previously known for her acting abilities, yells at a bunch of day labourers that The Man’s biggest beef against her people is that they crossed the border, but she says that it’s the border that’s crossed them, it was impossible for me not to be overwhelmed with the revolutionary spirit. And when Michelle Rodriguez reappears after we’re supposed to think she’s dead, sporting an eyepatch and little else, it was very hard for me not to, uh, feel inspired to fight the good fight against oppression.
Danny Trejo’s supreme virtue is that he just always looks as mean as the character he’s playing, and the cheesiness / awesomeness of the character never wavers. Of course, it’s still hard for me to get past the fact that Trejo is 66 years old. There is no way to make a man that old look credible in action scenes without judicious editing and stuntmen, but it’s the scenes where he’s groping hot babes 40 years his junior that I had the greatest difficulty with. And seeing him make out with Lindsey Lohan’s character and her mother at the same time is simultaneously one of the funniest and creepiest moments in the whole creepy and funny flick. Even creepier than when he blows people’s head off at close range or cuts them into ragged pieces with his trusty machete.
I wouldn’t really recommend it as a flick that’ll illuminate the complex immigration issue for you, but if you want to see the gruffest, toughest Mexican taking on the forces of racism one severed head at a time in a flick as fucked up and booze addled as Lindsey Lohan herself, then, by all means, here’s Machete for your consideration.
7 times they’re aren’t many problems in life that can’t apparently be solved with a sharp knife out of 10
“You just fucked with the wrong Mexican.” – that would be with any of them, surely? – Machete.