With Sly Stallone slurring his way through The Expendables at 64 years old, Morgan Freeman still throwing punches at 73 in Red and now Danny Trejo’s 66-year old Machete, 2010 may come to be remembered as the year where the action stars were more likely to pick up a pension than an uzi, and are more likely to die from natural causes during filming rather than the machinations of an evil genius with a pool full of laser-sharks. Apart from the age of their protagonists, though, neither of the earlier geriaction films this year have had much in common, except for the fact that they were both pretty rubbish, hampered by massive egos, shuffling pace and stumbling non sequitur dialogue that rambles through a main story like a forgetful uncle. This is where Robert Rodriguez’s infinitely lower-budget Machete picks up the ball that the other films can’t bend down for any more and runs off with it while the others complain about their dodgy knees. OK, enough of the ‘old’ metaphors now.
First presented as a joke trailer at the front of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s 2006 colossal in-joke/ego trip Grindhouse double bill Death Proof and Planet Terror, Machete has apparently been gestating in the mind of Rodriguez since his breakout second film Desperado. In what is reasonably well-worn territory for the rightly-lauded auteur director, the plot concerns ex-Mexican Federal Machete Cortez (Trejo, his beaten-leather face looking every one of his 66 years and possibly a few more) getting by as an illegal day laborer in Texas, after an unsuccessful attempt to take down drug lord Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal doing a Mexican accent- terrible, in case you were wondering, but in the most mesmerising way) leaves him with nothing much to live for. Hired to assassinate anti-immigration hardline senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro, actually playing it straight for once), he is double crossed and forced to go on the run to the Mexican underground, a network of illegal immigrants who patch him up and help him get back at the people who wronged him. Naturally, plot strands turn out to be somewhat interlinked, and we end up with a deliberately ridiculous immigrant uprising, much righting of wrongs and other glorious nonsense that perfectly recaptures the spirit of the no-apologies, over-the-top, physics-defying action films of the 80s that films like The Expendables were so desperately trying (and utterly failing) to evoke.
On top of this, the film also functions as a near-perfectly pitched homage to the exploitation films of the 70s, with crazy weapons, gratuitous topless scenes, irresponsibly-explosive gun battles, some gore, impractical vehicles and convenient plot twists that keep things rattling along and, perhaps surprisingly, keep you happily going right along with it. As if this weren’t enough, it also has a serious point to make about the treatment of illegal immigrants within the contemporary USA, which it manages to make at the same time as being entertaining, never shifting tone too violently or veering into the territory of preaching to the audience, making you feel you’ve been duped into seeing a Michael Moore film dressed up with guns and latinos.
Unfortunately, this message is slightly diluted by the fact that the film also seems incapable of taking itself completely seriously, throwing in ‘ironic’ sound effects and deliberate ‘grindhouse moments’ at certain points, as if Rodriguez lacked confidence in the ability of the movie to succeed as a ‘straight’ action film: the worst of these being where it ham-fistedly integrates footage from the original Grindhouse trailer into the movie. It’s a minor gripe, but rare to see a man of his conviction ‘playing it safe’ in the genre tropes rather than forcing the film to be accepted for what it is. Rodriguez’s keen eye for direction and storytelling, not to mention his fingers-in-all-pies approach to filmmaking (he co-wrote, co-directed, co-produced, co-edited and co-scored this film, which, believe it or not, is actually a step down from his usual duties) allows him to control a film in a way rarely seen in modern filmmaking, with a singularity of vision that almost always translates into exciting cinema, whether he’s aping Spaghetti Westerns (Once Upon a Time in Mexico), Video Nasties (Planet Terror), or even John Woo-style actioners, as shown here.
Perhaps it’s this energy and conviction that has managed to coax so many A-list stars (and Z-list legends) into doing the film. OK, Danny Trejo was unlikely to be busy, nobody’s clamouring for Cheech Marin, or Jeff Fahey these days, and Lindsay Lohan is pretty much uninsurable (though it still must have taken one hell of a charm/booze offensive to get her to agree to topless scenes with a 66-year old ex-con), but there can be no doubt that Jessica Alba, Robert DeNiro and Michelle Rodrigues would have had plenty of more lucrative options than this $10.5m picture, in addition to which, who else could talk Steven Seagal into being shot below the (double) chin these days? It’s clear the man is very good to work with, both in the talent on display and the performances they bring. Even DeNiro, derided of late for phoning in pantomime-subtle comic turns in questionable roles such as Stardust, Meet the Parents and (shudder) Shark Tale, pitches the villainous senator perfectly as half moustache-twirling evil and half clueless redneck.
A true grindhouse ‘Mexploitation’ film, featuring gratuitous everything, a ridiculous plot with a serious point and a largely unapologetic over-the-top approach to presenting in on screen, Machete is everything that The Expendables wanted to be. It’s big, bold, entertaining, familiar but at the same time avoids falling into the trap of cliché (largely through the use of one-eyed burrito van vigilantes, Lohan-nun shenanigans, and some unpleasantness with someone’s small intestine), and above all fun. OK, at times it leans on the grindhouse crutch a little too heavily, but even this is not enough to spoil what is an excellently-pitched and thoroughly enjoyable picture.