In simple terms, this film’s a triumph before the projector had even flickered on. The only time I’ve seen Seagal on the big screen is in the hallmark Orange adverts he did a few years ago, as I was too young for either his Golden or his Silver age. Only by sheer dint of fortune did my teenage self have the prescience of mind to steel well bloody clear of Exit Wounds, Ticker, or Half Past Dead. Robert Rodriguez’s Machete heralds the first time in (count ’em) eight years that the Big Man is back on the Big Screen, and being one of about 6 people in the world for whom the man is still a draw in his own right, well I’d be an idiot to miss it. The fact that the film’s a pastiche grindhouse film about Danny Trejo wielding various cutting tools of assorted sizes, well, that’s just a bonus.
The good news is that Seagal’s actually in it. This isn’t some half-a-day-on-set, calling-in-a-favour cameo that Schwarzenegger disappointed audiences with in The Expendables, no no. Seagal fills the boots of the ‘Evil Drug Lord’ Cortez with his ample frame, albeit by way of comically wobbly Meh-E-Co styled accent. A good heft of his screen presence is as the mastermind a Skype call away from the dirty work, and that mostly involves his big and surprisingly square mug leering from a laptop while he’s surrounded by nubile young things in bikinis. Recently dismissed sex trafficking charges aside, I’m sure this is a persona our man feels no acrimony in putting about. Even beyond the webcams Seagal looms large, mostly to throw taunts at poor susceptible Danny Trejo, and at the end to actually throw himself around in some vicious machete-on-katana duelling action. In a move contrary to established Seagalian convention, it doesn’t end well for our man, but he leaves with a smile on his face, and some ripe lines too boot. I couldn’t have been happier.
As for the rest of the film, well that doesn’t do quite so much to surprise and delight, despite grand promises to that effect. It certainly has its moments, and the endless conveyor belt of recognisable cameos intertwine with some frankly baffling events: Lindsey Lohan gets naked, before donning a nun’s habit; Robert De Niro dances around his best efforts of a George W. Bush impression; Don ‘Miami Vice’ Johnson hunts illegal immigrants with a rifle; Jessica Alba sort of gets naked for no good reason at all; Cheech (but not Chong) appears as foul-mouthed priest with a shotgun; Tom Savini rocks up, shooting from the hip, but not with his patented cock-and-ball-gun.
On paper that might sound like a riot, or an appalling demonstration in crassness, but in practice it’s an exercise in SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF YOUR VOICE for the whole time. Come the rather overblown and somewhat convoluted finale, where every sodding cameo has to make an appearance, well needless to say the film’s gotten rather hoarse. Keeping the bombast of the action permanently at eleven does however hit a few sweet notes, particularly in the dialogue spitting Padre Cheech, as well as in the parody campaign videos put out by De Niro as Bush, which are funny only in matching the insane hyperbole of real-world American political ad campaigns out there. [this clip being a terrifying example for illustrative purposes]
But the film is a long way from satire, and as a piece of exploitation the film also rings sadly hollow. In making an arch imitation of the skid-row, fleapit favourite, Rodriguez seems to be missing two rather simple qualities: Machete is neither cheap nor naff. Despite the time and effort that’s been put in to digitally scuffing-up the film, for all the bearing of breasts and the bursting of over-pumped veins, at no point does it feel grotty or genuinely exploitative. For want of a better missive it doesn’t have any distinct feel at all. Momentarily funny and overblown, but not a lot else, thankfully at least one lumbering part didn’t disappoint.