“Machete” began life as a mock trailer, appearing as part of the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez collaboration “Grindhouse.” With no obligation to character development or a fully developed storyline, the trailer format was “Machete’s” perfect home; it allowed Rodriguez to revel in the exploitation genre’s hyper-stylized mayhem and guns-blazing machismo, and even to layer in cosmetic touches like film scratches and a wobbly soundtrack to approximate the experience of watching a ‘70s trailer in a grindhouse theater. But “Machete,” the movie spawned by that rightly celebrated trailer, demonstrates that what makes for exciting visuals in a trailer can’t necessarily be stretched and spun into the fabric of a full-length narrative.
Danny Trejo’s titular badass goes up against Torrez, a Mexican drug kingpin, and McLaughlin, an anti-immigrant U.S. senator, both in league to build a border fence that’ll drive up prices of illegal labor and drugs. After his family is murdered by Torrez (Steven Seagal), Mexican federale Machete crosses into Texas where he lives a hardscrabble life as an illegal laborer. Before long, though, he finds himself double-crossed by Booth (Jeff Fahey), a seedy businessman, and framed for the attempted assassination of the crooked Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). Vowing to clear his name, Machete finds allies in two foxy ladies: immigration agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) and Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) whose taco-truck operation is just a front for her illegal-immigrant solidarity network called – what else? – The Network.
What begins in the mold of a lone vigilante’s quest for justice ends as a junkyard turf war pitting The Network – headed by Luz (now sporting an eye patch, bondage gear and a machine gun) and Machete – against a gang of racist, anti-immigrant guerillas led by Von (Don Johnson), a self-appointed border guard who shoots illegal border-crossers like he was game hunting. Huge sections of “Machete” – the finale especially – are endless displays of blood, bullets and hack-and-slash nonsense. The movie’s ample violence packs zero punch because it’s so overused and over-the-top that it all runs together as a perfunctory circus of facial impalements, beheadings, and eviscerations.
Rodriguez, who co-directed with Ethan Maniquis and co-write with Alvaro Rodriguez, runs out of ideas early and spends the latter half of “Machete” ratcheting up the gore and T & A as lazy substitutes for what could have been a smart, witty send-up of a fringe genre. By favoring clumsy, arbitrary detours and coincidences (the worst being Lindsay Lohan’s re-appearance late in the movie, in a nun’s habit, ready to blow away bad guys), “Machete” loses focus on its most compelling elements: Machete himself and its early potential as a single-minded revenge narrative.
Movies like “Machete” are critic-proof for two reasons: One, there is already an in-built sub-culture of genre and cult-movie fans who will flock to it, regardless of reviews. But the other, and more insidious, reason is that “Machete’s” makers can fall back on the catchall defense that it’s supposed to be bad. Because the tradition it draws on is defined by ludicrous plotting and loopholes in logic, “Machete” can wallow in its own laziness. If you don’t like it, it’s because you don’t get it, and you lack the context in which to appreciate it. Cop-outs like this are dangerous. They justify bad movies and keep the torch of idle, unimaginative cinema ever burning.
Directed by: Ethan Maniquis, Robert Rodriguez
Written by: Robert Rodriguez, Álvaro Rodríguez
Cast: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan