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 of The Expendables and other films (Hot 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 with.
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.