Monday 25 April 2011

La Revolución, exploitation style

By way of an introduction: Machete is awesome, of course. I mean, look at the poster. Or at the announcement, in the movie itself, that 'Machete will return in Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again'. Or the fact that Machete is not a nickname, but the protagonist's birth name. If you type 'Machete' that many times, it stops looking like a word. In any case: Machete is awesome, by which I mean to convey that I more or less squealed with giddy delight throughout the film.

Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) is a former Mexican Federale ('CIA, FBI, DEA, all rolled up into one mean fucking burrito', according to one character) who has fallen foul of drug lord Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal). Now Machete works as a day labourer in Texas - until, that is, he is hired by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate far-right anti-immigration senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). But he's double-crossed: one of Booth's gunmen wounds McLaughlin in the leg and shoots Machete to guarantee the senator's re-election. Now Machete must take revenge and uncover a conspiracy involving a racist vigilante organisation headed by Von Jackson (Don Johnson) - a task in which he's aided by honest immigration cop Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba), his brother, a priest (Cheech Marin) and a network helping illegal immigrants run by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez).

Ultimately the film comes down to a showdown between the vigilantes and Mexican immigrants. It's awesome, but it's also the one part of the film that director Robert Rodríguez treats without any irony. 'La revolución', as Luz calls it early in the film, is of course a fantasy - the marginalised and maligned immigrant working class rising up to overthrow the oppressive order, symbolised by racist paramilitaries. But it's an immensely gratifying and empowering fantasy, in tune with Frantz Fanon's assertion that the colonial subject's desire is not for equality but for the defeat and death of the coloniser. That Rodríguez takes such a clear stance is not self-evident in a B-movie; but at a time when immigrants are under fire (sometimes literally) both in the US and in Europe it's something to cheer every leftist's heart.

That, then, is politically pleasing to me; but what about other aspects of the film? Does Machete reinforce patriarchy, for example? For Machete most certainly does 'get the women', as the trailer promises - seven by my count, excluding his wife who is murdered roughly three minutes into the film. That the male gaze predominates in Machete I cannot deny. But I'd like to protest that the topic is treated ironically: with respect to sixty-six-year-old Mr Trejo, it is not quite plausible that Machete is irresistible to every woman in sight, and Robert Rodríguez makes not the slighest attempt to make it plausible. It's merely another homage to the conventions of 1970s exploitation films, in which heroes would womanise like nobody's business.

It's all a delight: the performances from an all-star cast (Rose McGowan was left on the cutting room floor) are over the top in just the right way. The villains stand out, from Jeff Fahey's magnificently purry drug dealer to Don Johnson as a murderous redneck ('There's nothing I'd like better than to see that Mexican dance the bolero at the end of a rope'). I don't need to mention that Michelle Rodríguez is bad-ass as usual (nay, more so than usual), and even Jessica Alba manages not to grate. Lindsay Lohan, as a 'nun with a gun', has a small but functional part. Of course, Machete is intensely violent. If you're squeamish about the severing of limbs, I recommend you do not see this. Nonetheless, if you have seen something utterly vicious like last year's Piranha, rest assured Machete is less depraved than that. Meaning it is still quite depraved. Be that as it may, Machete is ultimately a full-throttle thrill-ride, bloody and sexy and hilarious. A guilty pleasure, of course - but oh, how very pleasurable.

In this series: Grindhouse (2007) | Machete (2010) | Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

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