A near twenty year gestation has finally ended with the crowning of Robert Rodriquez’s low-rent revenge thriller, though it isn’t entirely clear how serious a prospect it was until it was trailed, with tongue in pussy, during the director’s Grindhouse double bill. As a two minute short, the scratchy, no-budget b-movie (the b standing for bang in this instance) looked like a guilty pleasure. Enough people wanted to see the whole terrible film to convince the bean counters to turn it into a $20m, 105 minute, old school massacre. The danger in this wearingly postmodern age, was that the joke wouldn’t sustain the running time. The good news is that such danger has been averted…just.
How highly you score on the teenage boy index will determine how much you get out of Machete. Frontloaded with the assumption that its audience is neither partial to nor familiar with the work of Germaine Greer, it indulges in a murder of inventive violence and balls out misogyny. The opener, in which Danny Trejo, a Hispanic cross between Jesus Christ and Arnold Schwarzenegger, nonchalantly beheads a room full of hired guns, only to be wrongfooted by a beautiful naked henchman with a phone hidden in her vagina, sets the tone for the entire enterprise. Rodriquez is savvy enough to know that the key to his crossover appeal lies in ladies getting their share of the action in his pictures. Here, he’s cannily selling Tequila back to the Mexicans, ostensibly empowering the likes of Michelle Rodriquez and Jessica Alba with a gun and a glare, while simultaneously fetishising them for the hardons in the audience. Fems who imagine themselves kicking ass like Ms Alba will simply have to suck it in when she chooses to contemplate her problems in the shower.
Such distortions are the pleasure of Machete; at least they are if you have a Tarantino swinging between your legs. It occupies a world that predates the well-intentioned but joy-slaying thought of those Berkeley intellectuals, who fired the first shot in the culture wars, advancing political correctness and killing the simple testosterone and tits formula that bulked out a thousand underpowered Eighties actioners.
Throwing back to a bygone age allows some of its biggest beasts to be resurrected, turning Rodriquez into a real-life John Hammond. He uses the audience’s familiarity and, whisper it quietly, affection for his Jurassic players to good effect, “introducing” (or should that be re-introducing) Don Johnson, who’s game as a racist border patrol man. Steven Seagal, who wisely keeps any physical excursion to a minimum, is dragged back to the big screen to play Trejo’s nemesis and there’s Jeff Fahey, whose whispered delivery makes for his most enjoyable turn since Eric Red’s Body Parts. Like Eric Roberts in Stallone’s Expendables, Fahey reminds us that these forgotten stars can still do the business when called upon. Still, let’s not make a habit of it.
Whereas it’s nice to see Fahey and company back on home turf, the sight of Robert De Niro is less welcome, signposting the latest stage in a decline that might be beyond abatement. Were circumstances different, you might ask the likes of Rodriquez and Tarantino to remind us what a great actor he can be by giving him the role of his life; a Travolta style rehabilitation. It seems cruel that Rodriquez has contrived to do the opposite.
Machete isn’t as lean and efficient as the genre demands, even if does have one foot in parody. It’s occasionally bogged down with flabby comic moments and some unnecessary winking at the audience. However, Rodriquez can’t be faulted for having too few ideas and not making the most out of the self-consciously derivative plotline. There’s plenty of wit, ranging from a man killed with a kitchen thermometer that pops when the body is blown clear from the house, to a priest’s network of CCTV monitors, arranged in the shape of the cross. There’s also a surfeit of Mexican metaphors – enough to build a drinking game around, which feels like the right context for viewing.
As a native Texan with a Mexican parent, Rodriquez and co-writer and cousin Álvaro have a lot of fun with the De Niro headed conspiracy to erect an electric fence along the Texan border, illustrated with a graphic that recalls John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, while managing a few good jokes at the expense of the their home state’s reliance on illegal Mexican labour. Grindhouse fans can relax however, the politics are as much of a cartoon as the sex and violence and one suspects Rodriquez aficionados wouldn’t have it any other way.
Machete’s best enjoyed as an adolescent male fantasy that liberally pokes fun at religion and the American right while delivering enough masturbatory material to make it a cult favourite. It may be thin but it’s fun and for some that will be enough.