Mac the knife

Duncan Wu's inner adolescent rejoices in a crazy tale of an armed pensioner's battle with injustice

October 7, 2010

Machete

Now on general release in the US; released on 26 November in the UK

Directed by Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez

Starring Danny Trejo, Robert de Niro, Jessica Alba

"What is this long hard thing?" a naked young woman asks an elderly man.

"My machete," he answers.

What you think of this exchange will largely determine your tolerance level for this blood-soaked, foul-mouthed romp through the Texan underworld. The obvious precursor of Machete, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, is the spaghetti western. For instance, the violence - of which there is a good deal - is enacted in a similar, self-parodic manner, although there are more uses in this film for garden shears, strimmers, corkscrews, stiletto heels, nail guns and other household objects than you are likely to see in anything directed by Sergio Leone.

Machete pushes the camp sensibility of Leone's films beyond what the Italian director would have considered sane. In that sense, it is best viewed as a sort of experiment. Consider its eponymous protagonist, played by Danny Trejo, a painfully gone-to-seed Hispanic on the wrong side of 65, sporting a Zapata moustache, long black hair and the tattoo of a nubile woman on his chest. It can't be entirely dignified for a gent of such advanced years to allow himself to be seduced by all the twentysomethings who cross his path during the course of this film (I counted at least four), and the audience with whom I watched it found the prospect hilarious.

No less so is the sight of him performing stunts that men half his age would hesitate to attempt - such as when, in the climactic scene, he hurtles through a cloud of fire and bullets on a Harley-Davidson with a machine gun mounted on the handlebars. Machete is a sort of superhero: "He's CIA, FBI, DEA, all rolled into one big burrito," claims the trailer. "They fucked with the wrong Mexican!"

Or take a look at the opening sequence, by far the best in the film, in which Machete dodges bullets while beheading and disemboweling his enemies, until he finds a nude siren young enough to be his granddaughter, who he throws gamely over his shoulder and carries downstairs.

As a portrait of life as a senior citizen in modern America, Machete may be implausible in some respects, but rings true in others. Offered a BlackBerry to send a message for help, Machete declares: "Machete don't text!"

The plot is nothing if not contemporary: it concerns the desire of a corrupt senator (played by Robert de Niro) to curb illegal immigration along the Texas border with Mexico. Its Marxist subtext argues for the right of Hispanics to enter the US as an act of "revolution". I admire the producers for smuggling such a subversive message into a film that mimics the conservative aesthetics of the mainstream Hollywood action flick.

Perhaps the most subversive element is Machete himself, an anti-hero who is both repellent and fascinating. As one character observes, noting his ability to attract violence: "Man, you're a walking shit-magnet!"

As that comment suggests, there is nothing solemn about Machete, not even when its protagonist goes to church. "It's dangerous having you here," the priest tells Machete. "I absolve you of your sins - now get the fuck out!"

My inner adolescent enjoyed this film, but it is not without its flaws. De Niro is completely thrown away - a shame, because he hasn't made a decent film for what now seems like decades. I defy anyone to follow its absurdly intricate plot, which abandons all attempt at coherence about halfway through. Worst of all, Machete outstays its welcome by about half an hour.

All the same, if you're as immature as I am, you'll remain glued to your seat if only for such set pieces as the hospital scene (as crazy as anything in late Bunuel), in which Machete's nurse remarks to the lecherous doctor who has just walked through the door: "I can feel your eyes on my uterus."

"Well," replies the doctor, "at least it's not your colon."

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