Machete is an insanely heightened
energy drink of a film, splattering gore and tossing severed heads with
an unchecked ferocity that dares you to turn away within the first two
minutes. The film is indulgent, self-aware, graphic, manic, ambitious,
voracious, and propelled by an unstable fury. It's also enormously
entertaining, often hilarious, and deliriously inspired. Co-writer
and co-director Robert Rodriguez (who scripted with his cousin Alvaro
and split directorial duties with editorial colleague Ethan Maniquis)
has packed all of his quirks, obsessions, strengths and weaknesses into
this massive tribute to the grindhouse bloodbaths of the past and come
up with something that both works and is borderline original.
It's Rodriguez's best film to date and a hell of a lot of fun.
The plot need not overly concern us,
even though it is worth pointing out that the Rodriguez cousins have
honed the script in a way that truly mimics both the style and themes
of exploitation films of the 1970s. There is a rejected hero,
left for dead. There are corrupt politicians. Current social
and political issues are addressed and wielded with the subtlety of
a sledgehammer. These and other elements raise the storyline of
Machete, for what it is, well above the level of the pastiche hackwork
Expendables and other
Tub Time Machine also comes
to mind) that attempt to recreate or pay homage to past genre conventions
without really demonstrating a solid understanding of them to begin
The title hero is played with a stoic
wit by Danny Trejo, who carries the bulk of the film with ease.
Machete is an illegal day laborer in a Texas border town, struggling
to make ends meet while calmly waiting for an opportunity to visit well-deserved
vengeance upon drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). In the meantime,
he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy led by Benz (Jeff Fahey), an aide
to anti-immigration US Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). While
he unravels the plot that will eventually lead him to Torrez, Machete
also avoids and then partners with immigration officer Sartana (Jessica
Alba) and aids Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who operates a taco stand and
funnels money to help illegal immigrants.
Machete is ideally cast with
one exception, which I'll address in a moment. Almost every
actor is matched perfectly to his or her role. Alba is aggressively
sexy as an unlikely immigration and customs officer. Rodriguez
tones down some of her more grating tendencies and is convincing, once
again, as a woman to fear. Fahey is perfect as only Fahey can
be, with that squint cranked up to Max., and Seagal is dully threatening
as the smirking supervillain.
The single misstep in casting is an
important one. As arch-conservative anti-Mexican Senator McLaughlin,
Robert De Niro is called upon to play a fool - a very broad fool with
a Texas accent. Historically, De Niro fails when called upon to
act silly. This is not to say he can't be funny - he can,
and has been, in The
King of Comedy, Meet the Parents, and Mad Dog and Glory. But De
Niro is not comfortable with broad comedy, and his performance here
betrays that discomfort.
But De Niro's presence is
limited, and we can enjoy the truckloads of absurdity Machete
delivers with such ease and confidence. It's difficult to describe
the sheer energy of the movie - and it's not a "nice" energy.
It's something born of an enormous consumption of bad movies, and
only Rodriguez could have upchucked such a coherent vision of awful
films gone right. Machete reflects a creative process that
is both meticulous and possessed, gleefully embracing anarchy and
the capacity for sin - the juxtaposition of Lindsay Lohan's bare
breasts and her subsequent appearance in a nun's habit being the most
obvious manifestation of this get-the-fuck-out-of-my-way insistence
on doing things that are obnoxious and surprisingly successful.
Machete is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, because it
embraces a genre that is shrugged off as abrasive and indulgent.
But being opposed to indulgence is to pretend we are not human, and
Machete offers a king's banquet of vicarious sins that should
safely sate most of us for a very long time. Machete is grotesquely
entertaining, hugely funny, and skillfully made, and with one exception,
it's the best time I've had at the movies this year.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.