Machete (Danny Trejo) is the last honest cop in a corrupt and dishonest land. He disobeys orders and attempts a one-man rescue of a kidnapped woman, but when he finally reaches her he’s captured by evildoers working for the meanest Mexican man alive… Steven Seagal. In the real world Machete would be silenced via an execution-style gunshot to the head and then dumped in an unmarked mass grave, but this is a movie so instead the bad guys leave him to die in a house on fire trusting that he’ll perish in the blaze. Fools. Three years later Machete is working as a day laborer in Texas when he’s approached by a redundantly shifty Jeff Fahey who offers him $150k to kill a racist senator (Robert De Niro) before his re-election. But it’s all a ruse and Machete is double-crossed and framed for the assassination attempt with the end goal of baiting the public into voting based on fear. Now Machete has to clear his name by any means necessary… and that means lots of shooting and slicing, lots of sexy ladies, and lots of actors killing time before their next more legitimate film.
Machete opens in the now overly familiar faux-grindhouse style with scratches on the film, frenetic zooms, and expected musical cues, but once the title card hits Rodriguez wisely leaves the distracting film alterations like scratches and hairs behind. He hangs onto the fun though, the elements that make most of the movie a bloody blast to watch, and the end result is a flick that rivals some of the year’s best comedies for laughs and some of the biggest action movies for balls to the wall mayhem. An especially impressive feat as the movie is an utter mess in so many more traditional ways.
The flick has several memorable set-pieces and visual gags, but at a certain point it becomes apparent that’s really all there is. Machete is wronged. Machete gets revenge. That’s it, and that’s fine, but the movie feels compelled to throw in a whole host of smaller characters and plots that go nowhere fast. Cheech Marin plays Machete’s once thuggish now priestly brother. Jessica Alba plays a Mexican-American INS agent questioning her resolve in catching illegals. Michelle Rodriguez is a roach coach operator who doubles as the leader of the underground Mexican resistance. Lindsay Lohan is Fahey’s drug addicted, web-pornicating daughter yearning for a new habit. Don Johnson runs a border patrol outfit made up of redneck racists (like De Niro’s Senator McLaughlin) who get to shoot illegals entering the country at the border. It’s all too much and unimportant to Machete’s original revenge plans.
But screw complaining, a movie that includes the best cinematic use of an intestine since Re-Animator can be forgiven a certain amount of shittiness. And you’ve never seen a luckier cell phone than the one that appears about fifteen minutes in. And the 360 degree multiple decapitation scene? And the campaign ads for Sen. McLaughlin’s re-election? And a grown-up Daryl Sabera as an adopted Mexican? And the late to the party revolutionary pushing the Mexican ice-cream cart? All great stuff. Especially that cell phone scene…
Half of the film’s appeal comes from wacky exploitative bits, but the other half is due directly to the cast. Trejo is memorable from dozens of other films, but it’s always been in supporting roles. His unforgettable face tells a story of a thousand knife fights followed by fewer than a hundred visits to the emergency room. He’s weathered and worn, and while no one will mistake his performance as one with any real degree of range he delivers lines like “Machete don’t text” with the exact deadpan required. Alba and Rodriguez both play one-note characters, but they’re in on the joke and play things just seriously enough. Plus, you know, they’re sexy. A trio of actors appear as much for the Pavlovian audience response as for their actual talents… Fahey, Johnson, and famed fx guru Tom Savini are just fun to watch as they tear into the scenery with their respective badassedness. Marin is exactly what you’d expect, and while his storyline adds nothing to the film he does land a few jokes and gags that get a laugh. Seagal’s performance is the most appreciated though, and he gives more effort and enthusiasm in his fifteen minutes here than he has in his last twenty direct to DVD films. He’s a foul-mouthed bastard, and his death scene is one of the best in recent memory. (Not a spoiler people, villains always die in grindhouse flicks.)
Not all of the cast are welcome additions though. De Niro was apparently convinced by someone he foolishly trusted that Machete would look good on his spotty resume. Whereas others play it big but serious, De Niro just plays over the top, loony racist #7 with zero restraint. I’d be embarrassed for him if I hadn’t already seen The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle.
There should be no question going in as to exactly the kind of movie Machete is and isn’t. If it wasn’t clear from the film’s advertising and the text above this is not a film that takes itself seriously. At all. And neither should you. The gags fly fast and furious alongside the blood splashes and bare breastesses. It’s a wet and fleshy romp that for two-thirds of its running time understands perfectly what a campy homage to grindhouse should look like. But it probably could have withstood a twenty minute trim off its hour forty running-time. It runs out of gas well before the finish line. As my grandmother never used to say, the movie has too many threads and not enough vest. But you can do far worse for a night out with friends than to see this flick. It’s stupid fun, but it’s still fun.
The Upside: Very funny; very bloody; first two thirds have a strong but humorous grindhouse aesthetic; Danny Trejo finally in a lead role
The Downside: Runs a little too long; third act moves from exploitation homage to pure, context-free silliness; CGI blood is never cool; did Robert De Niro lose a bet?
On the Side: The end credits of Machete promise two sequels… Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again.