The new film Machete began as one of the fake trailers during Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation homage Grindhouse, and was so awesome that fans demanded it be turned into a real movie. Unfortunately, the resulting feature isn’t quite as relentlessly terrific as the two-minute version, but it is quite a lot of fun, combining the satire of exploitation-movie clichés with real action-movie thrills and some legitimate anger to make a thoroughly entertaining movie.
Danny Trejo plays the title character, a blade-wielding bad-ass who spends his time seducing women when he’s not chopping off bad guys’ heads. With machetes. The movie makes you wonder where his love for machetes came from. His dossier says his name is Machete Cortez. So, did he decide to start using machetes because that was his name? Or was it just coincidence that he enjoys killing people with large blades? Or maybe he liked machetes so much that he changed his name to Machete. Such a complex man.
Anyway, when the movie begins, Machete is a Mexican federale whose wife and daughter are killed by evil drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). Machete then drifts to the United States, and is working as a day laborer when Booth (Jeff Fahey) hires him to assassinate Sen. John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), who is violently opposed to illegal immigration. After being shot, and blamed for the assassination attempt, Machete finds out that Booth works for McLaughlin, and the plot was designed to win sympathy for the senator, so he decides to find the people who set him up and take them out, gathering lots of supporters along the way.
Add to that Jessica Alba as an ICE agent, Michelle Rodriguez as a woman who runs an illegal immigration network out of her taco truck, Don Johnson as a murderous minuteman vigilante and Lindsay Lohan as Fahey’s meth-addicted porn star daughter, and you have the makings of a ridiculous exploitation classic.
Rodriguez co-wrote the movie with Álvaro Rodriguez, and co-directed it with Ethan Maniquis, and though he is obviously just looking for excuses to dish out over-the-top mayhem, he also has a good time making fun of exploitation movies. There’s the scene in which Machete’s federale partner agrees to help him and is immediately killed, or the way the movie pauses periodically so Machete can bed another lady, or the incredibly obvious body double that takes over for Lohan during her sex scene.
There are plenty of ridiculous things in the film (Machete jumps out of a window using a guy’s intestine as a rope, after all), but Trejo is real. He’s an ex-con who turned to acting, and he and his craggy mug have been bouncing around for years. He’s been awesome in pretty much everything in which I’ve ever seen him. He manages to have fun with his role (“Machete don’t text!”), but he also brings an automatic authenticity to every role he plays, and here his impassive, monosyllabic growl gives the film a great anchor around which to spin tons of insanity.
It’s fun seeing just exactly what random craziness Rodriguez will throw at us next, whether it’s Machete disguised as a gardener and attacking a guy with a weed whacker, or a henchman wearing a luchador mask for no reason or advocating a race war against all the evil white oppressors. Rodriguez also finds time to indulge his obvious fetish for disabled people. He has Michelle Rodriguez in an eye patch here, Rose McGowan with one leg in Planet Terror and a blind Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
There’s also a lot of political button-pushing about the illegal immigration debate. While it’s nice to have an exploitation film that has something on its mind, Machete is a little lightweight as social commentary. Rodriguez’s anger seems real, but the sheer cartoonish evil of his villains, who would rather kill illegal immigrants than deport them, make it hard to take his arguments seriously. Of course, who really wants subtle messages from their exploitation movies? Why should the movie’s politics be any less over the top than the rest of it? Anyone who takes seriously the parsing of the politics of a movie that has a guy twirling in a circle and cutting off the heads of five guys probably has much bigger problems.
But much like Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the points he’s trying to make here can at times overwhelm the movie, leaving it overstuffed and chaotic when it should be lean and mean. Still, it’s better for a movie to have too much to say than too little.
The cast really seems to be on the same wavelength as the material here. Michelle Rodriguez in particular manages to give the material some weight while still enjoying the sheer badass ridiculousness of it. Fahey has a great, whispery intensity that he seems to have lacked earlier in his career. De Niro seems to be more engaged here, and having more fun, than in any film he’s made in the past several years, as he revels in his character’s villainy while still being oddly compelling during the senator’s campaign speeches.
Seagal and Johnson are also obviously having a lot of fun, and relishing the opportunity to play villains, or maybe just the chance to be on movie screens again. Much is made of Tarantino’s penchant for giving washed-up actors second chances, but Rodriguez does it quite a lot as well: Mickey Rourke in Sin City, Sylvester Stallone in Spy Kids 3 and Josh Brolin in Planet Terror, just to name a few.
Half of the fun of Machete is the sheer joy of the fact that something this crazy exists. The fact that it is so much fun is kind of a bonus. At its best, the movie manages to poke fun at exploitation movies from the ’70s and ’80s while simultaneously feeling like a very good entry in the genre. At its worst, it’s still sleazy fun, and at least it’s not dull.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.