Director of Photography:
Running time: 100 minutes
Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil was released in 1958. Essentially the most stylish B-movie ever made, with an opening tracking shot that would be studied in film schools decades later, it famously stars Charlton Heston as a Mexican called Vargas, in spite of him having no accent whatsoever. The choice of Heston, who had played Moses two years earlier in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments and would portray the title character in the award-winning Ben-Hur the following year, was contrary to all common sense, but it worked because the film permitted such casting lunacy.
Machete offers a similar performance that initially takes the viewer aback but succeeds in grabbing the viewer’s attention for exactly the same reason as in Welles’s film: Steven Seagal, starring in one of the best films of his career, is cast as a Mexican crime boss named Torrez. I’m not suggesting that Seagal is equal to Heston by any stretch of the imagination, and perhaps he realises as much, because at least he tries to go for the accent.
Of course, a review of Machete must pay homage to the work done by Tarantino, starting with the two Kill Bill films and, in particular, the Grindhouse double feature that consisted of his Deathproof and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. In fact, Machete is a feature-length adaptation of one of Grindhouse‘s fake trailers, which accompanied the full version (as opposed to the separate films) and are available on the DVDs. In terms of the physical action, Rodriguez continues to relish in his exaggerated representations of bloodletting.
The story is set up as a clash of cultures between the Mexicans, who cross the border, and the Americans who lie in wait, ready to shoot ’em up the moment they set foot on Uncle Sam’s soil. A representative of the xenophobia gripping America, but also, we learn, merely a politician, is Senator John McLaughlin, played by Robert de Niro – his best role in more than 10 years (at least, since Great Expectations). McLaughlin is involved in target practice on Mexicans who cross the border during the night, but he himself is betrayed by an over-ambitious deputy, whose involvement in an assassination attempt causes him to become entangled in Torrez’s affairs.
It all might seem like a big mess, but Machete, played by the very ugly Danny Trejo (an amazingly prolific actor, I learn: His profile on the IMDb claims that he starred in 18 films in 2010 alone, including Machete), separates the wheat from the chaff, or the head from the body, with his big machete.
The film’s B-movie feel naturally helps to create the illusion that everything is permissible, and mistakes in continuity or visual effects may be ascribed to the film’s aspiration to be something unconventional. That is a very clever strategy, and it does cover a lot of ground, but the film is not an entirely homogeneous production, and therefore there is still room for improvement. Don Johnson’s role as Von Jackson, the leader of the group of vigilantes patrolling the border, did not shimmer with the kind of rough energy of any of the other characters, and the directors allowed themselves to be carried away by their own desire to produce something better than a B-movie: During a shoot-out at a church, the bloody action is accompanied by a rendering of “Ave Maria”, which is more reminiscent of the baptism in The Godfather, or scenes from The Boondock Saints, and does not fit with the rest of the filmmaking approach in this film.
Machete is bloody bucket loads of fun. The novelty does wear off after a while, but at least Rodriguez tells his story simply and effectively, without the many metafilmic flourishes that Tarantino would have added, and consequently it feels like the product of someone who is more interested in the story than the format in which it is presented. The machete is a brutal weapon of choice, and even if we have never seen it used in real life, Machete shows us how it is done – as well as other uses for intestines.