In 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, perhaps the ultimate ‘fan boy’ directors of the past 15 years, teamed up for Grindhouse, their valentine to all those gloriously tacky, often violent and always sexy drive-in exploitation double-bills of the 1970s. Unfortunately, the finished film turned out to be little more than an interesting misfire, amusing and enjoyable but one that could have - and should have - been so much more.
But one clear highlight of Grindhouse (in its original cinematic format) were the fake trailers shown at the beginning of the film and in-between the two features (Planet Terror and Death Proof). In particular, the faux trailers for Eli Roth’s sick slasher Thanksgiving and Rodriguez’s revenge actioner Machete garnered great audience reaction and were singled out as being worthy of expansion into features.
While we’re still waiting for Roth to come through, Rodriguez (along with co-director Ethan Maniquis) has answered the call by turning his two-minute long Machete trailer into a 104 minute ballet of outrageous and highly stylised comic book violence. Low on plot, high on splatter, tongue planet firmly in cheek.
Machete (Danny Trejo) is a former Mexican Federale, now an illegal immigrant doing day labour jobs on the streets of Texas after he is left for dead (and his wife is killed) by slimy drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal, pilling on the pounds and sporting an hilarious toupee). Reluctantly, Machete accepts an offer from spin doctor Benz (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) a corrupt Senator. The expectant double-cross sees Machete on the run, hacking his way through the bad guys with everything from weed whackers to surgical instruments and seeking help from a sultry taco slinger and leader of a rebel group (Michelle Rodriguez), his Padre brother (Cheech Marin), and the sexy immigration agent Sartana (Jessica Alba, who has the distinction of being both the film‘s worst actor and it‘s best-named character). Also along for the ride are Don Johnson as a trigger-happy border vigilante, make-up effects maestro Tom Savini as a hitman and Lindsay Lohan, who seems to have every one of her vices and exploits etched on her 24 year-old face and spends most of her scenes drugged-out or naked, before donning a nun’s habit and going postal (in what is either a smirk at Lohan’s public persona or just a simple nod to Zoe Tamerlis’ character in Abel Ferrara’s 1981 classic Ms. 45).
Naturally, this being a homage to low-grade seventies sinema, the film has a washed-out look, with deliberate scratches and jumps, retro fonts on the opening credits and some funky porn music on its soundtrack (not to mention a pretty silly nod to the famous bionic sound effect used in The Six Million Dollar Man). But while Rodriguez clearly has a genuine affection for the cinema that inspired Machete, and it shows his commitment in that he went ahead with the film even after the box-office failure of Grindhouse, there is still something disappointingly fake about the movie. Perhaps it’s all the blatant CGI violence, so over-the-top at times that it actually becomes quite tiresome. Or maybe it’s because these films weren’t made to be shown in suburban multiplexes filled with bratty designer-clothed kids and the latest Harry Potter epic playing next door. They were made to be watched as the bottom feature on an all-niter at the suburban drive-in, or in grotty, musty shoebox cinemas that have stained screens and play hardcore porn films every other day.
Maybe it’s because you just can’t make ‘em the way you used to, no matter how sincere you might be.
Still, if you can deal with the film’s forced hipness, Machete, anchored by the presence and raw charisma of 66 year-old Trejo in his first starring role, offers up enough visceral thrills to make a passable time-filler, best enjoyed with a couple of friends and a few cold beers. But it’s no substitute for the real thing.
Copyright John Harrison 2010