Danny Trejo’s cool. We know this from his lengthy list of film appearances, which includes Heat, Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Con Air and, more recently, Predators. He also has that unmistakeable, lined, grizzled face that appears to have a hundred years of terrible, extraordinary experiences etched onto it, a face that exudes menace and charm in almost equal measure.
A bit player for years (he scored his first role, a tiny part in 1985’s Runaway Train, while working as a drug counsellor for a member of the film’s cast), Machete at last places Trejo centre stage.
A spin-off from the mock trailer that appeared in Robert Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse, Machete is another deliriously violent, self-referential action throw-back in the vein of straight-to-video mulch such as Chuck Norris’ unintentionally side-splitting Lone Wolf McQuade.
In the casting stakes, Machete ranks not far behind The Expendables as this year’s starriest action film, with Trejo backed up by Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan as gun-toting warrior women on both sides of the law, and Jeff Fahey, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson and, most remarkably, Robert De Niro among the colossal roster of antagonists.
At the film’s opening, it’s explained that Trejo is a Mexican Federale who once “took out the trash” for both the CIA and the FBI. But like Schwarzenegger in his 80s prime, the part Trejo plays is largely irrelevant, and the title gives you all the information required – Trejo’s name is Machete, because that’s his favourite weapon. And within seconds, Machete’s using his machete on heads, arms and legs, and blood flows in abundant torrents.
The movie’s vast network of villains, which includes drug runner Torrez (Seagal), ruthless businessman Booth (Fahey), murderous sheriff Von (Johnson) and right-wing senator McLaughlin (De Niro) all conspire to build a huge, electrified wall between the US and Mexico to keep out illegal migrants, and several years after being left for dead by Torrez, Machete is unwittingly drawn back into the bad guys’ evil schemes.
The first hour of the film intricately sets up sufficient motives for Machete to exact his revenge on every last one of the film’s villains – with some reasons more plausible than others – which he eventually does, in spectacular fashion.
Chekhov’s famous principle about guns applies here. When you see a corkscrew lying idly around on a worktop in one scene, you just know it’s going to end up stuck in someone’s eye in the next.
Opening in a veritable fountain of gore and continuing in the same (ruptured) vein, Machete offers some of the most spectacularly outlandish violence you’ll see in a cinema all year, including a fascinating intestinal riff on John McClane’s high-wire abseiling stunt in Die Hard, a creative alternate use for a meat thermometer, and shotgun blasts that shatter heads like overripe pumpkins.
All this decadent bloodshed could border on the unpleasant were it not for Rodriguez’s wicked sense of humour, and like his Planet Terror feature in Grindhouse, Machete is far too knowingly goofy to cause offence. As Jessica Alba’s tough law enforcer Rivera puts it, “Exploding houses? Falling bodies? You’re a walking shit magnet!”
The film makes a few wry comments about the cruel hypocrisy with which migrant workers are treated, but these are constantly drowned out by Machete’s daft script and bloody spectacle. This is a film to enjoy with friends, and is to be viewed as trashy popcorn cinema. It’s the action movie equivalent of a firework display.
Michelle Rodriguez is as sultry as ever, doubling as a burrito seller and secret underground community worker, and later transforming herself into a machine gun-wielding angel of vengeance. Cheech Marin shows up in a chortle-inducing role as Machete’s priest brother, whose chapel boasts a cluster of closed-circuit televisions in the shape of a cross and a huge arsenal of guns.
Then there’s Robert De Niro, whose apparent habit of accepting roles without first reading the script has, for once, worked in his favour. He’s great value as a despicable, racist senator with a lust for power, even if it is hard to believe that this really is the same chap who played Travis Bickle all those years ago.
Given the entertainment value in Machete’s action scenes, and the unavoidable charisma of Trejo himself, it’s a pity that Rodriguez allows his movie to peter out towards the end. Running perhaps a quarter of an hour too long, Machete concludes with a pantomime-like mass fight scene that lacks the messy creativity of its opening, and Trejo’s concluding face-off with one particular big-name villain is oddly lacking in tension.
Nevertheless, Machete is the kind of film that, viewed in the right environment, with the right group of action movie-loving friends, will provide a sterling night’s entertainment. Rodriguez’s film loses its momentum, but Trejo never loses his cool.
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