Macheteby Kavish Chetty / 21.10.2010
Danny Trejo has a ‘holy shit’ kind of face. His eyes are sunken back into a pure umbra; he’s a Mexican longhair with a longer moustache and a face full of scars. It’s the sort of face that made Robert Rodriguez think, “…this guy should be the Mexican Jean-Claude van Damme.” Self-indulgence isn’t something that Rodriguez balks at – in 2005 he directed a film that was essentially made up from his children’s scribblings (unsurprisingly, the final product was called Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D! – inspired). So, here he is again, in the spirit of Grindhouse, giving Trejo centre-stage to sneer, growl, chop off heads and even rappel down the side of a hospital building using a man’s intestines as a rope.
There is a kind of tacit agreement between the audience and director when you watch this film, and it functions as a cultural ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. Rodriguez says, “Alright, listen up. Everything you’re about to see, it’s highly ironic and self-reflexive and self-conscious and postmodern. So, you may think that you’re watching some regular old blockbuster action, but you’re actually not. So this time, when you enjoy this, you’re laughing at them not at yourself.” This film is perhaps brilliant because it addresses two aspects of every filmgoer’s psychic apparatus at once. To the id it says, “You want to satisfy your pleasure principle? Well here’s enough blood and explosions and tits and all sorts of other primal shit to keep you going.” And to the super-ego, it says, “Are you feeling guilty about all the brainless bullshit in this film that’s making you so very happy? well, then take heart, son, because it’s all a mirage; a grand conjuration made from the finest postmodern silk. It’s an inside joke, and you like it because you’re beyond it.”
The film becomes an elaborate tribute to, and upstaging of, the spirit of the Mexploitation genre films of the 60s and 70s (and don’t forget Rodriguez’ own El Mariachi) – it’s crass, crude, filthy, violent, iconoclastic, lovely.
Trejo plays Machete (say it: ‘Mah-chetteh’ with a hard ‘ch’) in a plot which essentially boils down to one phrase: “you done fucked with the wrong Mexican.” He’s on a personal vendetta to slay the man who framed him, and en route he uses the titular blade to decapitate, deracinate and dismember his enemies, and also manages to keep finding himself in the company of naked women. When the first woman, an exquisitely nude Mayra Leal, moaned “It’s too hot to wear clothes,” I signed away my intellectual aspirations on the dotted line, and thought, “Right Rodriguez, my libido is yours. Hurt me!”
This all happens against a revolutionary political backdrop – gung-ho Republicans versus immigrants – in which an organisation of casual labourers are being mobilised by an elusive taco-vendor leader (Michelle Rodriguez) to overthrow the increasingly invasive machinations of an anti-immigrant political candidate (Robert de Niro).
The first five minutes of the film kind of lays the blueprint for all the rest – fantastically pornographic music, more beheadings than a Taliban home-video, plenty of nude women etc. It’s the political iconography of its immigrant-vigilante conflict that rescues this film from being just worthless pulp cinema – that, and of course (let’s not fuck around) the chance to see Danny Trejo versus Steven Seagull in the film’s climactic bloodbath. In many ways, then, Machete is a masterpiece, a kind of cinematic promised land, that takes all the teases of five decades worth of action cinema and places them together at last – let’s just hope that Rodriguez becomes aware of how easily banal this sort of film-making can become. Here’s my ‘Cape Argus critic’ sign-off: “Um, if you liked Death Proof and Planet Terror then you’ll like this!”