Machete (2010): United States – directed Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez
Rated R by the MPAA – contains nudity, drug use, language, racism, sexual content, extreme violence, gore
Machete is precisely what Grindhouse should have been back in 2007: an homage to a simpler time, when movies had fewer production values, more blood, insane action, outrageous plots, and more nudity. The movie starts with a bang and a slash and continues strongly to an even more ridiculous climactic battle, and all of it is tied together with a strong, silent performance from Danny Trejo.
Trejo plays Machete, a Federale who got caught up in the wrong drug war. Three years ago the evil drug lord Torrez (Steven Segal) brutally murdered his wife. Machete survived and eventually found his way north of the border. Here he works as a day laborer until the day a sharply dressed man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) watches him dispatch another immigrant in a fight without even raising a fist.
Booth offers Machete $150,000 for one day’s work: shoot a U.S. Senator as he gives a reelection speech. The Senator just happens to be the repulsive McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), an ultra conservative running on a platform that involves erecting an electrified fence across the entire border with Mexico.
Something goes dreadfully wrong and Machete finds out that he’s been set up by the wrong people. As he evades constant threat of death he fights his way up the ladder of evil, hacking and slashing his way through the bad guys. He is helped by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a taco stand owner who may be involved with the mysterious Network, a group of people engaged in transporting people across the border and setting them up with jobs and papers. Machete finds an unlikely ally in Immigration Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba). It’s a good thing he has allies, because even Machete can’t take down an entire army of redneck racists on his own.
He can, however, take down a half dozen drug dealers at a time with only his machete, or beat a man with a weed wacker to gain entrance into a house. He can also escape a sexy illegal hospital while destroying bad guys and using one’s intestines to rappel out of a window. He can sense danger a mile away and isn’t afraid to use a corkscrew to remove a bad guy’s eyeball. He probably kills more people than words he utters and bears a resemblance to a Mexican Schwarzenneger. He even finds time to please the ladies, and in one hilarious scene finds himself in a pool with a nude mother and daughter combo, played by a semi-coy Lindsay Lohan and an unrestrained Alicia Marek.
One key factor that makes Machete a more successful exploitation and grindhouse film than Piranha 3D [review here] is that the nudity is more incidental. There are few soft focus closeups on fake bosoms, and in the rare instances where the nudity is prominent the film doesn’t make a big deal out of it. It is treated more naturally, as a pastiche to the golden age of trashy films should treat the naked body. Machete also has a stronger, more ridiculous story than most modern “grindhouse”-inspired films. The convoluted plot twists and turns and rarely slows down, even when it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It just doesn’t care, the same way the film doesn’t care about nudity or absurd violence. It treats every element seriously, lending an underlying air of cleverness to the film.
Some of the movie’s statements on immigration are a bit obvious. It’s clear that there is an agenda of sorts, as even the Immigrations Agent finds herself admitting that the system is broken and that sometimes it is better to do what is right than follow the letter of the law. De Niro’s Senator is gleefully over the top, as is Lt. Stillman (Don Johnson, receiving an “Introducing” credit). Stillman spends his time chasing down immigrants crossing the border and enjoys shooting them dead as much as anything else in life. It is his army that must face Machete’s gang of Mexican workers in a climactic showdown.
But all of the ridiculous plot and absurd violence would be worthless without the talent of director Robert Rodriguez (and co-helmer Ethan Maniquis) behind the wheel. Rodriguez manages to make the film look and feel like it’s been dragged through the dust of a thousand border towns and still look crisp and clear. He understands “cool” and uses it in a way that his pal Quentin Tarantino should study. A reserved, almost calm style lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves. Everyone sounds almost as dirty as they look, with the majority of the cast speaking like they’ve been infected with Clint Eastwood-itis. Trejo manages to pull this off most convincingly, and carries the movies on his broad shoulders and tattooed arms.
A deep supporting cast fills out the rest of the roles, with Cheech Marin playing a key role in a John Woo-inspired church shootout and subsequent crucifixion. Even Tom Savini shows up briefly as a ruthless assassin brought in to take down Machete. Lohan’s role as a drug-abusing internet slut is almost too timely to be laughable. Almost.
As a whole, Rodriguez perfectly understands what a movie called Machete should accomplish and how it should do it. There are only a few complaints one could level at the film. It’s a bit long, but feels like it should include a more fleshed-out climax. A gathering of all the bad guys should have been treated more gradually, and it almost feels rushed when everyone’s death scenes are given short thrift. Aside from this minor complaint, Machete is as pure a grindhouse film as Piranha 3D is an exploitation film. Overall, however, Machete succeeds much more admirably in providing an enjoyable, over-the-top theatrical experience. A fan of grindhouse or exploitation cinema will find him- or herself smiling in delight and glee throughout the entire film.