Make no mistake: Just because Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete” revolves around timely issues like anti-immigrant xenophobia and Hispanic stereotyping doesn’t mean he gives them the respect and critical treatment they deserve.
Instead, he does what any low-budget genre filmmaker worth his salt-covered wound did in the 1970s: He exploits the hell out them.
“Machete” is the gore-riddled, nudity-filled Mexploitation romp that Rodriguez (who produced, co-wrote, co-directed, edited, and created music for the film) has wanted to make for years. In 2007, when he and Quentin Tarantino put together their violent throwback double-feature “Grindhouse,” Rodriguez got close. He shot a three-minute trailer for “Machete” even though the movie itself didn’t actually exist.
It does now. Expanded out to a 105-minute movie and featuring several scenes from the original “fake” trailer, “Machete” employs the same more-is-not-enough strategy as Rodriguez’s half of “Grindhouse.” So while there may not be any developed characters and a fair amount of wholly unconvincing acting (mostly from Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan), there is enough sheer mayhem to make what would normally be a drawback seem like it was all part of the plan.
Longtime movie tough guy and real-life ex-con Danny Trejo finally gets a leading role after 25 years in the business and it plays to his strengths—mainly his menacing presence. He is Machete, a hulking ex-federal agent with enough scars and tattoos for an entire Tejas gang. Thanks to a plot far too silly and convoluted to go into here, he gets mixed up in an assassination attempt on a U.S. Senator (Robert De Niro) who is running on a blatantly racist anti-immigration platform.
The fact that the Senator wants to build a wall that actually electrocutes Mexicans as they try to cross the border should clue you in to the level of subtlety involved in “Machete.” For the most part, though, it works. There are tons of violent, funny sight gags that lampoon over-the-top action films and at least one—dare I say—soon-to-be-classic parody of Richard Roundtree’s famous through-the-window rappelling move from “Shaft.” (At 2:46.) Machete even has Shaft’s magic touch with the ladies, who fall all over him.
Through it all, Trejo plays it straight as ever. He becomes a projection, a myth rather than a real human being. It builds up his stature, but it also means his delivery is deadpan fabulous. After Alba hands him a cell phone to get a message to someone, he utters the funniest line in the film: “Machete don’t text.” (Apparently the line came from an actual Rodriguez-Trejo correspondence about the film and was added into the final script afterwards.)
While actors like De Niro, Cheech Marin, Steven Seagal, and Don Johnson ham it up appropriately, it is Alba and Michelle Rodriguez who try (in vain) to find some emotional truth in the script. Along the way, they are tripped up by some terrible dialogue (even for a campy film) and some misplaced political messages.
Michelle Rodriguez at least looks convincing holding a gun though, and she’s flat-out badass sexy with a black eye patch, black bikini top, and tight black leather pants.
Alba comes off as a piece of stunt casting gone wrong—there’s no sense of irony in her performance at all, yet she’s not believable as a tough ICE agent at any time during the film. When she delivers what is supposed to be a fiery and funny, I presume, Malcolm X reference—the line implodes as she speaks it out loud. Maybe she heard how silly she sounded. Since “Machete” is partially meant in a campy spirit, though, should Alba be let off the hook for being terrible? Was she terrible on purpose?
“Machete” is flimsy and sloppy, full of choppy editing and scenes that don’t end forcefully so much as they kind of wind down and fade out. But when it works, it achieves a playfulness that’s infectious.
The film’s self-awareness is at an all-time high and the jokes and absurdity come at a fast and furious pace. What better way to attack a divisive and ridiculous culture clash in the real world than with a similarly ridiculous, testosterone-filled revenge fantasy?