Machete (2010) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong bloody violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity
Running time: 105 min.
Cast: Danny Trejo, Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan, Shea Wigham
Director: Ethan Maniquis, Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez, Alvaro Rodriguez
Review published February 15, 2011
What started out as one of the fake trailers in the Grindhouse movie has actually become a full-fledged feature film. This B-movie with an A-list cast starts off reminiscent of its 1970s exploitation flick style (sloppy cuts and grainy, well-worn film stock) that was its inspiration, though it sheds much of this aspect once it hits the opening credits and the modern clean, CGI-fueled special effects take over. It's quite gory as action films go, with impalings, disembowelings, and decapitations rare to find outside of a horror flick, though so over the top, it's foolish to take any of it as anything more than to be irreverently humorous in its gruesome audacity.
Danny Trejo (Predators, Fanboys) stars as our antihero, Machete (the same name he also has in director Robert Rodriguez's Sky Kids movies), called such for his propensity to use large knives in violent ways. He's a former Mexican law enforcement officer (a Federale) who escapes to Texas illegally when he refuses to be as corrupt as his cohorts in service of powerful Mexican drug lord, Torrez (Seagal, Attack Force). Three years later, after being confused as being a day laborer (though with some fighting skills), he's hired by a Texas businessman named Booth (Fahey, Silverado) to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (De Niro, What Just Happened), who is currently running on a platform of cracking down mercilessly on illegal immigrants and erecting a wall to prevent further border crossings. But it's an elaborate setup and he's the fall guy, leaving him on the run from the American authorities, most notably ICE Agent Sartana RIvera (Alba, The Love Guru), and the Senator's gang of goons out to make sure Machete doesn't botch their big plans.
Although some might take a great deal of the film as serious due to the hot-button political topic of illegal immigration, Rodriguez (Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) is basically playing more for tongue-in-cheek laughs than a call to arms, exploiting the subgenre of exploitation films themselves to tell them from the Mexican perspective, with larger-than-life heavies, a fantasy-land network of good folk, and situations pushed to the extreme for effect. That's how exploitation films work -- they push the boundaries solely to showcase its violence without having to hold back because those that are evil truly deserve what's coming, If you're unfamiliar with the genre, you risk not really getting that the entire film is one long-running joke and make the mistake of taking the film at face value and think it is an earnest call for Mexicans to start a race riot.
Blood gushes, limbs get lopped off, and Machete beds every appealing woman in sight, all with highly stylized, ultraviolent bravado. It's a standard revenge flick done with a high dose of chutzpah mixed with some satirical digs at the conventions of its own exploitative influences. What Rodriguez lacks in his crony Tarantino's gift for character and dialogue, he makes up for in brevity, as he keeps the dialogue minimalist and the action inventively unrelenting when it needs to be. Like Quentin, Rodriguez also casts some actors looking for second chances to new light, such as Don Johnson as a shady border cop, Steven Seagal as the evil drug lord Torrez, and Lindsay Lohan (I Know Who Killed Me) as Booth's morally dubious daughter (choice irony is employed when Lohan dons a nun's habit late in the film). While it won't go down as one of De Niro's finest performances, his role is refreshing to see, playing the slimy Senato, because it is far bolder than most of his acting choices of late. Longtime character actor Trejo also performs well in his first starring vehicle, with all of the toughness and screen presence required to make the part believable, even if he's not quite the Casanova-lover leading man the screenplay sometimes implies.
Trashy but slick, Machete is glorious "Mexploitation" for those who enjoy the virtues (and vices) that the label implies. It might be overlong, vulgar (perhaps even offensive to some), and it is definitely excessive, but you can't expect a film called Machete to do everything by the book. The film ends with the boast of not one, but two sequels -- a claim that's perfectly in keeping with the audacity of Rodriguez's bombastic Magnum-wielding opus.
-- Followed by Machete Kills (2013)
©2011 Vince Leo