Oct. 09--It started as a promise, evolved into a joke, became part of a controversy and now it's a franchise.
It's Machete, the Mexican federale turned north-of-the-border avenger. Danny Trejo returns as what he and creator Robert Rodriguez like to call the movies' first Latino superhero in "Machete Kills," the second full-length feature in the series.
This time, rather than battling anti-immigration Texas racists as he did in 2010's "Machete," Trejo's granite-faced bladeslinger goes on a ridiculous odyssey from the White House through Mexico, back to the Southwest desert and ultimately --yes --into space.
It's as silly as it is surreally inventive, a blood-and-babes packed hybrid between a Roger Corman exploitation movie and a James Bond thriller -- with a 69-year-old ex-con in the title role.
When asked if he ever thought he'd be the star of a 007 satire, Trejo lets loose one of his hearty laughs.
"I never thought I'd get out of prison!" he says. "Life's pretty good, thanks to Robert Rodriguez."
Well, not just the Austin-based writer-director of the "Spy Kids," "Desperado" and "Machete" films (all of which Trejo's appeared in).
For those not familiar with the Echo Park-born, partially Pacoima-raised actor's story, Trejo was a stone criminal and drug addict as a child and spent 11 years of his young life in assorted California prisons. He became a boxing champ at San Quentin and eventually got out and got straight.
A longtime addiction counselor (he's marking 37 years of working with Glendale's Western Pacific Rehab), Trejo visited an actor he was helping treat on the set of "Runaway Train" in 1985. The tattoed, tough-looking guy was almost instantly asked to play a convict extra in the movie. Once his boxing skills were discovered, he got upgraded to a featured role.
That was some 250 movie and television appearances ago. Many of Trejo's recent films are straight-to-DVD productions (the Internet Movie Database lists some 28 credits for 2013 alone), but many that have also endeared Trejo to a wide, mainstream audience.
None of the latter more than "Machete."
Rodriguez promised to create a starring role for Trejo all the way back on their first film together, the 1995 "Desperado."
The actor first took on the Machete name in the "Spy Kids" movies, but that was a different character from the hilarious, deadpan badass introduced in the fake "Machete" trailer that was part of the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino group project "Grindhouse" (2007). The movie didn't do too well, but fans loved the jokey trailer so much that the demand for an actual "Machete" feature didn't stop until Rodriguez and Trejo fulfilled it.
"He's done over 200 movies, and now even his mom calls him Machete," Rodriguez says of the actor who, unbeknownst to either man early in their work history, is also a second cousin. "He's perfect for the part because he's unlikely in a Charles Bronson type of way. In the old days, you could shake a tree and out would fall a Lee Marvin or a Charles Bronson. It's rare now to find somebody who has that tough guy strength and unlikeliness.
"And Danny also has this softness to him in real life," Rodriguez adds. "I don't like to give him a lot of dialogue because when he speaks, you can see that he has this really big heart and that's completely against what he looks like."
Trejo also has an impish sense of humor at odds with that great stone face.
"Machete is the kind of guy that, if you were an older person and you got sick, he would g'o water your plants and cut your grass for you," Trejo says of his now signature role. "And if somebody was burglarizing your house, he'd kill 'em.
"There's, like, no kind of middle ground with this guy. He is somebody that, if it's wrong, he's going to make it right. That's what I love about him. He's a superhero but he doesn't fly. He can't see through metal and he's not made of iron -- and he doesn't have to wear tights."
In "Machete Kills," he takes on an absurd array of antagonists played by a cast that's eclectic by even Rodriguez's zany standards: "Modern Family's" Sofia Vergara (sporting a Gatling gun bra), Oscar nominee Demian Bichir, Amber Heard, Antonio Banderas, Lady Gaga and Mel Gibson. All at the behest of a U.S. President played by a familiar-looking newcomer who calls himself Carlos Estevez (hint: his dad played a president on TV).
Some location anecdotes, Danny?
"When Robert first said 'Action,' I was supposed to swordfight with Mel Gibson," he recalls. "I threw my sword down. Robert said, 'What's wrong?' 'I'm not gonna fight William Wallace. Are you crazy? He freed Scotland!' "
"I had a love scene with Amber Heard," Trejo recalls with great relish. "When Robert said 'Action,' he said 'Action! Amber, why won't you stop laughing?' She said 'Because Danny won't stop saying, 'Thank you, Jesus!'"
It isn't all laughs in Danny's world. He takes his efforts to keep kids in school and off drugs very seriously. He's installed a gym in his Mission Hills home -- less than three miles from the neighborhood where he grew up -- and advises his contemporaries to take half-hour walks like he tries to do every day.
And of course there's that voluminous workload, which is about to get even bigger. He'll be a series regular on the upcoming FX sitcom "Saint George," playing the troublesome uncle to George Lopez' character.
OK, maybe not so serious after all.
"People always ask me, 'Are you ever going to retire?' " Trejo notes. "I'm like, 'They send me to Hawaii to make films and I sunbathe. Retire from what, going to Hawaii? I'm having a lot of fun.'
"I don't think there's any age that you have to retire. When you stop having fun and just want to go fishing, that's when you retire.
"I'll go fishing when I have a day off."
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