At last count, I’ve seen From Dusk Till Dawn 119 times. Directed and written by bosom buddies Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino respectively, FDTD was too quirky to register at the box-office, in spite of starring George Clooney at the height of his good looks, but garnered a cult following soon enough.
Ostensibly a prison escape drama about convicts on the run, it segues into a blood-and-guts vampire splatter flick set in a tequila bar on the Mexican border about halfway through, making it the first film sincePsycho to so effortlessly and effectively flip genre on the unsuspecting viewer. I have waited patiently this last decade for Rodriguez to hit that spot again, something he missed with Once Upon a Time in Mexico. And now, finally, it has happened. Starting life as a fake trailer in another Rodriguez film, Machete was born of popular demand, as an in-joke, and retains the playfulness that this sort of genesis dictates.
Starring Rodriguez staple Danny Trejo as the titular Machete, the ensemble cast consists of stars from the mainstream and, far more fun, from the cult peripheries, including Steven Seagal, Robert De Niro, Don Johnson (playing a character named Vaughn Jackson), Jessica Alba, Cheech Marin, Lindsey Lohan and Michelle Rodriguez. It is, I suppose, no real surprise that the only actor who was unable to bring either presence or comic timing to his role was one Robert De Niro, a man who hasn’t given a performance of any worth since Michael Mann’s Heat and whose reputation has no doubt left an entire generation wondering just what drugs their parents were on to have made a legend of this rather tedious ham. De Niro aside, the entire cast gamely plays along with the director’s giant, knowing wink at B-movies, camping it up with great gusto without crossing the line into foolish or redundant. Even Jessica Alba makes a decent go of it.
The plot regards illegal Mexican immigrants, the network that supports them, the right-wing senator who ferociously opposes them and the myth that comes to embody them. The plot, as was the case in Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the least of one’s concerns, it is merely an excuse to show a flawed protagonist take up a crusade against a greater evil than himself. In other words, it provides the necessary frame to showcase lovingly stylised, ingenious, absurd, comical and always engaging ways to murder, maim, mutilate, have your way with beautiful naked women, decapitate, disembowel, and in one of my favourite moments, swing to freedom from a window using a human intestine as a vine. That a film can do all this without dragging, without feeling pointless, tiresome or remotely offensive, that it can still create memorable characters, get genuine belly laughs (the Steven Seagal finale had me in tears) and never let the momentum drop is the skill of a genuinely rare talent at play. There are plenty of people this year who will watch Christopher Nolan’s greatly overhyped Inception because it may make them feel clever for about two hours. For people who already know they’re clever, I recommend Machete.