2010 has seen something of a resurgence of interest from Hollywood in the school of making B-movies – cheap and cheerful product aimed at delivering maximum entertainment for minimum cost. Perhaps the global recession has forced producers to look for more reliable ways of making a steady income with lower risk, or maybe there’s only so many all-singing, all-dancing 3D blockbusters that a studio can afford. So far this year we’ve had Piranha’s 18-rated schlocky mixture of blood and breasts (which already has a sequel in development) and earlier this month alien invasion flick Skyline delivered a decent special effects show on an even lower budget (even if the rest of the film fell flat). Now Machete slashes its way in to multiplexes, boasting an equally tight sub-$20m budget and a star best known for bit parts in Robert Rodriguez movies.
Wearing its retro exploitation credentials proudly on its sleeve, Machete is of course the feature-length expansion of a fake trailer created by Rodriguez for his and Quentin Tarantino’s ill-fated Grindhouse project. The trailer was for many the highlight of the entire experiment, and after Grindhouse flopped at the box office, fans speculated as to whether a real Machete film might ever see the light of day. It finally got the go-ahead, though arguably more as a result of Rodriguez’s friendship with star Danny Trejo, and his production company getting in to bed with co-financiers Twentieth Century Fox, than genuine pent-up audience demand. Yet the fact remains that Machete the spin-off has so far earned a touch more than its parent film did in the US, and on about a quarter of the budget. Is this a lesson other Hollywood producers could take onboard?
Machete is a pastiche (with tongue ever-so-slightly in cheek) of the old-school action revenge flicks of the 1970s and 80s – imagine a typical Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris vehicle from that period and you’re halfway there. In a droll pre-credits sequence deliberately scratched and scuffed like Grindhouse, Machete (Trejo), an unstoppable battle-scarred Mexican cop with vast pectorals and a flowing mane, is double crossed during a raid on a hideout belonging to drug kingpin Torrez (a plump Steven Seagal) and is left for dead. Three years later, working as a day labourer in Texas, he is suddenly offered a job by businessman Jeff Fahey: to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro, slumming it), a slightly exaggerated version of George W. Bush. In reality though, Machete is merely a decoy in a scheme concocted to get McLaughlin re-elected on an anti-immigration platform. But the bad guys will shortly discover that, as the film’s tagline has it, they just f**ked with the wrong Mexican.
The truth of the matter is that the political conspiracy side of Machete is an entirely unnecessary diversion. A grindhouse audience is there to see action, violence and, with any luck, the occasional slice of nudity. Political statements about the rights of immigrants are usually quite low on the shopping list. It’s a shame Rodriguez felt compelled to beef up a storyline that only really needed to be 90 minutes of action scenes strung together with a revenge motive. Instead the audience is sidetracked with a sub-plot about an underground network of Mexican immigrants getting their own back on redneck Texans intent on keeping their state “clean”.
Still, when the action comes it is worth the wait – surely the litmus test for any good B-movie. Trejo himself is like a Mexican Schwarzenegger: a monosyllabic, expressionless force of nature, cutting a swathe through the assembled bad guys and occasionally taking time out to bed a woman (though one struggles to see how the aging Trejo succeeds in attracting beauties like Jessica Alba or Michelle Rodriguez, even with his striking physique – but perhaps this is part of the joke). The memorable scenes from the original trailer have been more or less faithfully (if not entirely credibly) re-created in the finished product. Some scenes, like the gratuitous sex-in-the-pool (you know the one) or the motorbike mounted with a machine gun flying in to the air, are disappointingly brief and perfunctory. Others, such as the moment where Machete jumps out of a second or third-floor window holding what appears to be a rope, are unexpectedly embellished in more colourful ways. The climax tries to stretch its budget a tad too far with a sort of epic gang war between immigrants and racists – no prizes for guessing who wins – but it fails to match Machete’s earlier moves.
But this is exactly the point: we’ve already seen a lot of the best bits from the film. Any B-movie trailer must show the most exciting bits in order to ensnare its audience, and Machete's original rousing tribute has perhaps built up unreasonable expectations. The best B-movies know exactly what they are there to do and do it with fine-tuned precision. Machete entertains for most of its running time, with an admirable low-tech approach to action and a suitably down-and-dirty feel, but its bloated plot unfortunately gets in the way when it should really just be cutting to the chase.