If "Inception" is this summer's smartest cinematic thrill ride, "Machete" sits at the opposite end of the spectrum.
A loud, giddy, carnal blast from one of cinema’s most relentless schlock auteurs, Robert Rodriguez’s latest is best enjoyed with your brain switched off.
Billed as a “Mexploitation” flick and doffing its sombrero to the likes of “Coffy” and “Shaft,” this over-the-top pastiche of Westerns, revenge thrillers, cultural stereotypes and soft core porn will be catnip for those who flocked to Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 cult opus, “Grindhouse.”
It was within “Grindhouse” that the world first glimpsed Rodriguez’s blood-soaked vision for “Machete.” Included as one of the fake trailers bridging “Grindhouse’s” two halves, “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof,” audiences were treated to the sight of eternally gruff character actor Danny Trejo flinging all manner of sharpened metal at villains and making time to mack on the ladies. Drunk on killer taglines — “Machete’s” most quotable line is unfortunately unsuitable for print in a family publication – it was an amusing lark, albeit one with no apparent future beyond “Grindhouse.”
But Rodriguez has never been one to let a thin premise get in the way of a full-length project, so it wasn’t long before “Machete” moved from two-minute trailer to feature film.
Even more improbably, Rodriguez assembled a roster of actors that seems like, on paper, a spectacular mismatch: Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba all turn up during “Machete’s” hyper-violent run time.
Yet everyone brings a loopy conviction to their roles, however anemically written (Robert Rodriguez, along with Alvano Rodriguez, penned the screenplay). Despite several tongue-in-cheek set pieces, “Machete,” which was filmed on location in Austin, Texas, works, even though common sense suggests it should not.
The plot is simplicity itself, culled from decades of similarly themed films. Machete (Trejo) is, as the film opens, a Mexican federale whose family is brutally murdered at the hands of ruthless drug lord Torrez (Seagal, sporting the worst Spanish accent ever attempted).
Although left for dead, Machete escapes to cross the border illegally and scrape by as a day laborer in Austin. He maintains a tenuous connection to the mysterious Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who’s under investigation by immigration agent Sartana (Alba).
Before long, Machete finds himself tangled up in political intrigue, as Booth (Fahey), an aide to right-wing hatemonger Sen. John McLaughlin (De Niro), solicits Machete’s help with a murderous task. Things go awry, as often happens, and soon, Machete is on the warpath, laying waste to his enemies in unique fashion.
Some might be surprised by “Machete’s” incorporation of politics, although a strident political point of view isn’t unusual in the exploitation genre. It’s not hard to discern where Rodriguez and his co-director Ethan Maniquis land on the illegal immigration issue, although in an effort to drive home their point, the directors come off as nagging. The narrative also becomes bogged down, late in the film, by political intrigue; at that point, viewers will be impatiently awaiting the spectacular “race war” showdown.
Aside from the finale, the current affairs commentary doesn’t get in the way of the film’s kinetic set pieces. More than any other modern director, Rodriguez excels at staging visceral action sequences. As far back as 1995’s “Desperado,” Rodriguez was making do with minimal budgets and achieving maximum impact. The exploitation genre’s anything-goes attitude allows Rodriguez to indulge in some of his most lurid imagery since “From Dusk till Dawn.” One memorable scene involves “Machete” showing, shall we say, real guts, as he escapes a hospital.
Those in search of an elegant, Tarantino-style homage to rough-and-tumble cinematic fare won’t find it here. Rodriguez is only interested in updating a gritty, gory genre with pointed political commentary and modern filmmaking techniques.
“Machete” is hardly cerebral (unless copious brains splattered upon walls counts), but it just might be the most fun now available at the multiplex.
*** 1/2 *
Cast: Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Lindsay Lohan
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis
Rating: R; strong bloody violence throughout, language, sexual content and nudity
Running time: 1:45