It's almost impossible to believe that Robert Rodriguez and his cohorts at Troublemaker Studios managed to turn a two-minute gag trailer that's all money shots into a movie that a) makes sense, b) is about something and c) sell it to a major studio, but on top of all that, Machete is actually good. A delirious blast of R-rated mayhem, Machete combines tongue-in-cheek social commentary, sharp filmmaking technique, and a love of cult films and Z-grade schlock of the '70s, resulting in a theatrical experience that plays even better than Rodriguez's half of Grindhouse.
Just as in that original spot (which you may have seen before Planet Terror, but more likely saw on YouTube), familiar character actor Danny Trejo plays Machete, a former Federale turned unemployed drifter who gets roped into a double-cross scheme involving a United State senator. In the full-length feature, we learn that Machete was actually double-crossed twice, the first time by his corrupt Federale captain. The captain is working with Torrez (Steven Seagal), a drug lord who kills Machete's family and leaves him for dead. Not surprisingly, Torrez also turns out to be involved with the senator scheme, and the moment Machete realizes it, well, the villains learn the hard way that "they just fucked with the wrong Mexican."
As the hero, Trejo wisely underplays the comic book madness with just the right amount of antihero gravitas, growling five-word sentences when he actually speaks and letting his attitude say more in the meantime. After a blood-soaked prologue, Machete is a craggy, cold-eyed rock, letting the world wash over him, and it isn't until the villains, thinking he's just another anonymous day laborer, accidentally draw the fight in him right back to the surface. Jeff Fahey and Cheech Marin are also back, as the senator's right hand man and Machete's preacher brother, respectively, both easily angling their performances at the same pitch of satire and seriousness as they did before. Newcomers include Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, owner and operator of a taco truck; Jessica Alba as immigration officer Sartana, Don Johnson as a corrupt border patrolsman; and best of all, Robert De Niro as the senator, McLaughlin. I've read plenty of rants about De Niro's performance, but while he's not great in the film, he is game for the tone Rodriguesz and co-director Ethan Maniquis are after. Spewing a terrible, fake Texan accent when he's talking to his constituents and sounding basically like De Niro when he isn't, the guy is called upon to do some mighty silly stuff in Machete, and the more uncomfortable he looks, the funnier it becomes. Just cap your hopes for Seagal's participation; he sports an even worse accent than De Niro and his ultimate showdown with Machete doesn't call for as much of Seagal's hand-to-hand combat skills as I was expecting (i.e., any).
Rodriguez released a trailer a few months back, mostly consisting of the original teaser footage, with a short message from Trejo about the current state of immigration laws, a hot-button issue in Arizona. Surprisingly, the film actually tackles the topic head-on, but it's all delivered in a way that rings more funny than preachy. One moment, when a security guard starts arguing against his three friends about their treatment of Hispanic and Latino people, comes close to harping on the nerves, but it's defused a minute or two later with a great joke. Best of all, the way the third act brings this plot thread full circle is pure unadulterated bliss. I could try and explain what happens, but I think the viewer has to see the third act of Machete to believe it; the scale and scope of what Rodriguez, Maniquis and co-writer Álvaro Rodríguez (Robert's cousin) have come up with is one of the most surprising, funny spectacles I've seen all year.
I could go on and on about Machete's little details: the returning characters from Grindhouse, a blatant Escape From New York reference (as well as a funny nod to De Niro's past work), Lindsay Lohan's fake nudity (it's just trick editing, folks), the beheadings, Machete's opinion on text messaging (do I smell an in-theater PSA?), Tom Savini. Suffice it to say, for my money, this is some of the purest, most unpretentious fun available to be had in a movie theater so far this summer, and best of all, it's legitimately well-made in a way that other B-pictures couldn't muster, going above and beyond its jokey concept with enough no-holds-barred creativity to be fun without feeling forced (something parts of Planet Terror couldn't escape). I can hear the voice-over from the original trailer in my head: "He knows the score! He gets the women!" Finally, truth in advertising.
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