Graphic violence, blatant sexism, bad words in two different languages, and obvious over-indulgence on the part of the director. These are the superficial elements of the initially seemingly distasteful Machete - the latest film by Robert Rodriguez made in 2010 and spawned originally as a trailer connecting Death Proof and Planet Terror, the Grindhouse film-concoction thought up and executed by Quentin Tarantino and Rodriguez respectively in 2007.
A closer look however reveals some surprising things. Rodriguez has always tended, like Tarantino, towards overtly stylised, violent themes. Also like Tarantino though (but a little bit less so) his dialogue though seemingly puerile and almost unnecessary in some action scenes is actually quite clever, wittily tongue in cheek, often punning on dialogue from past similar films that have now become classics, and very often with a surprising underlying political sarcasm.
Machete is based on the eponymous character played by the great, but undersold Danny Trejo – a dangerous looking man, with scars on his face and deadly skills with blades of all varieties. Initially a federal agent in Mexico, Machete is caught in a deadly drug raid when his superior officer turns on him and hands him over to Torres a drug-lord played by a now very wide girthed Steven Seagal. Torres kills Machete's family and leaves him for dead.
Fast forward a few years and Machete has crossed the border into Texas and is scrounging a living as a day-labourer. As films go, Machete simultaneously catches the eye of Luz (played by the always feisty Michelle Rodriguez) who runs a taco truck that feeds the labourers and who might also have a secret alter ego identity as "She" (punning on Che Guevara) – a vigilante that protects the rights of illegal immigrants; Jessica Alba's slightly banal Immigration Officer, Sartana, becomes interested in him and runs a trace on him; and finally when goaded into a fight (which he wins easily) he is recruited by a certain Michael Booth (played by Jeff Fahey) to assassinate the Texas Senator John MacLaughlin (Robert De Niro) who is campaigning on the promise of stopping immigration from Mexico by building an electrified fence along the border.
Needless to say, everything is connected. Booth is actually McLaughlin's aide, and has set up the assassination attempt to boost the Senator's political chances. Machete is implicated as the Mexican who tried to commit the "hate crime" and goes on the run where he's helped by an underground network of immigrants and hidden by Luz for a while.
Through the various ludicrous but hilarious twists and turns, Machete gets his revenge, the Mexicans get their justice, and the evil Texan white man hegemony is shattered – all with the help of some great cameos by Don Johnson and, surprise, Lindsay Lohan as the nymphomaniac daughter of Booth who appears, unforgettably, in the final scenes wearing a nun's habit and carrying a shotgun.
I won't deny that Machete glorifies violence, and though it has political edges, it doesn't dignify its message in any way. Still, at the risk of sounding terribly uncritical – sometimes a film can be just "fun" and even though it has its weaknesses – it can be more than worth watching just for the pure ridiculous joy of watching a talented director letting it all out.
All DVDs reviewed in this column are available at: Music and Expression, Thamel, Phone # 014700092