Double Bill Revenge Madness (Pt. 1)

Review of double bill of Machete and Red Hill, the Astor cinema, St Kilda, 6th January 2011.

Seeing a double feature can be a risky endeavour. It’s the price of a single admission, so you tend to hang your hopes on the main feature, but the thought lingers that a couple of hours of your life may be about to flit away into the ether once the second set of opening titles roll before your eyes. Worse is the desire the see the second item on the bill, knowing the unappealing ‘A’ material might put you to sleep.

It was in the knowledge that I might be looking forward to an early power nap that I recently indulged in my passion for no-holds-barred, guns-a-blazin’ revenge flicks by catching a back-to-back screening of the Grindhouse spin-off Machete and ‘vegemite western’ Red Hill at the Astor cinema in St Kilda, Melbourne.

I’m an unashamed Robert Rodriguez fan, even his kids’ flicks. There: cards are on the table. Like many other Grindhouse fans, I’d been looking forward more eagerly to a feature-length realisation of Machete than any of the other films given fake trailer treatment in the original combined version of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Here was a chance to see it at a cult movie-friendly venue, and in the company of Patrick Hughes’ ‘Mad Max on horseback’ at no extra cost.

His family killed and his life as a Mexican Federale destroyed by drug kingpin Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal), Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) is hired some years later by the shady Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate Texan Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). It’s a set-up, which is bad news for Booth and company because, as the fake Machete trailer famously chimed, “They just fucked with the wrong Mexican.” Enlisting his priest brother, Padre (Cheech Marin) and an assortment of new allies including Jessica Alba’s Sartana Rivera and Michelle Rodriguez’s Luz, Machete sets out to expose the conspiracy he’s been embroiled in and seek revenge on just about everyone in town.

At its heart, Machete is a straightforward revenge flick that uses the Grand Guignol violence and rapid fire cutting in the Robert Rodriguez tradition to accentuate its appeal. This is a film that knows its audience and knows it well. The screening I attended was filled with people who were applauding and cheering at the more ostentatious moments of ‘cool’ violence, revelling in identifying every gory ‘money shot’ that had been recycled from the trailer. The flavour is pure indie comic book, from the splashy title sequence to the stylised costume and production design. Yet there is a surprising depth to the back story, if not to the well played but (deliberately?) thinly written characters.

Surrounding Machete’s retribution kick – which inevitably turns into a vendetta when it is revealed that Torrez is linked to the conspiracy – is a border town that feels like it’s been lifted from a possible near future. Talk of revolution is never far from the surface, the mysterious ‘Shé’ spoken of as a messiah for illegal immigrants, border vigilantes making life dangerously difficult for people looking for the promise of a land of opportunity. Alba’s Rivera, an immigration officer, undergoes the most pronounced character arc, her ambivalence between what is right and what is legal embodying the broader themes this film dares to challenge its audience with. Impressively – and consistent with parts of Rodriguez’s oeuvre – these political statements are channelled through strong female characters. Feminist icons they may not be – particularly Luz, transformed in poster art and later parts of the film into a leather bikini-clad Snake Plissken – but it’s the women who are the longer-term movers and shakers in this world, Machete and his male kin merely the foot soldiers out to kill each other in the name of something far less global.

The roll call in Machete is more fascinating than the one that graced the credits on Grindhouse, yet it is surprisingly strong. Trejo, for whom the title role was originally written some fifteen years ago, fits the disgruntled revenge killer like a glove. It is a star part if ever there was one, and it should succeed in providing much greater exposure for this underrated character actor. Fahey and Marin join Trejo in returning from the fake trailer, and both are terrific. Fahey, unrecognisable since his Lawnmower Man days, was a delight as BBQ-obsessed restaurateur JT Hague in Planet Terror, and he lends Booth an unnerving psychotic calmness throughout. Marin, ever a welcome presence in Rodriguez fare, provides splendid comic relief and a surprising ‘cool’ factor as Padre.

Surprisingly strong are Jessica Alba and, as Booth’s daughter April, Lindsay Lohan. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Alba’s performance in Sin City, and much of her other work has left me equally cold, but she lends the complex Rivera sufficient credibility. Essentially playing her rehab-loving self until she dons a nun’s habit and starts toting various firearms, Lohan functions admirably as April. She isn’t exactly required to stretch, but neither is she a disappointment – except insofar as she completely fails to resemble the original April as seen in the fake trailer and a handful of shots in the film’s final cut.

De Niro, Don Johnson and Tom Savini are elsewhere more than serviceable in their performances, the only real disappointment being the ever-monotonous Seagal. But, given he’s essentially there for audiences to cry out, ‘The bad guy’s Steven Seagal,’ one shouldn’t expect miracles.

The direction, shared by Rodriguez and long-time collaborator Ethan Maniquis, is consistent throughout, suggesting a strong working partnership between the co-directors. Given Rodriguez’s penchant for being a one-man film crew, it is surprising indeed that Machete doesn’t fall apart at the seams: for this adventure, he’s given up the camera and has elected to share directing, writing and editing chores. Jimmy Lindsey, director of photography after years spent shooting Rodriguez’s second units, makes an impressive leap to the main unit, dowsing Rodriguez and Maniquis’ variation on Austin, Texas in golden brown hues that speak of a coming apocalypse. Christopher Stull’s production design accentuates the message, making the whole city look like it’s perpetually on the wrong side of the tracks, while Nina Proctor’s costumes look like they’ve been torn from the pages of the sort of left-field superhero comic that hangs just on this side of plausible.

Review continues next post…

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