There was a lot of anticipation, at least among fans of schlock cinema, when Robert Rodriguez announced that he would be making a feature length adaptation of the fake trailer Machete that he had included in the Grindhouse project he did with Quentin Tarantino. That couple of minutes of Danny Trejo wreaking havoc in revenge was a joy to watch, and hopes were high that the full length version would be as well. Sadly, that's not quite the case. Machete has a lot going for it, but misfires as often as not.
The film starts promisingly enough. Machete and his partner in the Federales are heading in against orders to rescue a young woman who has been kidnapped by fearsome drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). Lots of decapitations, dismemberments, mayhem, and naked female flesh are thrown around before Machete realizes that he has been double crossed. Soon, his wife and child are killed, and he's left for dead in a burning building. But that's not the last of him. This is Machete we're talking about. Three years later, he's a day laborer in Texas, and he's soon picked up for an out of the ordinary job by Booth (Jeff Fahey), a political aide who wants Machete to kill his boss state Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) for one hundred fifty thousand dollars. After a token resistance, Machete takes the job.
Complications occur, of course, since the whole deal was a setup. Booth wants to help McLaughlin's campaign by staging the assassination attempt, and Machete is just a tool who can be conveniently eliminated later. They aren't counting on the fact that he's a hardened, resourceful ex-Federale, however. Or that he's Machete. Machete makes his way through the ranks of his enemies, with the help of delicious ICE agent Rivera (Jessica Alba) and his own brother Padre Cortez (Cheech Marin) and the leader of The Network, an immigrant aid group and resistance movement, Luz (Michelle Rodriguez). A few murders, close escapes, betrayals and romantic asides later, Machete finally has his epic confrontation with Torrez, and all is well with the world.
Machete has everything that a good, exploitive schlock movie should. It has beautiful women, often with few clothes. It has outrageous, bloody violence by the bucketful. It has cheesy one liners, a good dash of humor (when it works) and a simple revenge narrative plot. So, why isn't this the best movie ever? It's hard to place one's finger on it. It's as if nothing fits together quite as it should. Everything is two and a half beats off. Many of the moments seem forced or rushed, inauthentic. Let's start with the humor. There are some genuinely funny moments, as when Padre Cortez is urging Machete to get the heck out of the rectory and says, "I absolve you of all your sins, now get the fuck out." Cheech Marin can deliver a quick line like few others, and this and similar moments from him are laugh out loud funny. However, a lot of the gags just don't work. Machete's line, "Machete don't text" when Rivera scolds him for not letting her know what he was doing falls very flat, as do a lot of Machete's comedic moments. It's not that Trejo lacks talent, or can't be funny. Trejo has scads of talent, but it's not well used here. The lines are too silly, or the timing is off. There are a lot of visual jokes as well, such as a man who has been stabbed with a thermometer and then hurled out of a house by an explosion. He lands on Rivera's car, and the temperature on the thermometer comically rises to the top. At another point, Machete uses a man's intestines to scale down a wall, and there are plenty of other humorous kills along the way. But these by and large elicit a grin at most. These should all be getting belly laughs, but as mentioned above, the timing on many are off just a tiny bit.
The next misstep is the heavy handed political references. Robert Rodriguez obviously has strong feelings about illegal immigration, but he lets himself go a little too much in his portrayal of the villains here. McLaughlin and border enforcement vigilante Von Jackson (Don Johnson) shoot a pregnant immigrant and her husband without qualm early in the film. McLaughlin even ensures that the moment is videotaped so that he can show it to his big donors. Of course, this spells his doom later when the video gets out. It's never good narrative to have your villain defeated because he is so stupid that he tapes himself committing murder. And he's not the only one. Booth later murders a priest in a church with very large and obvious security cameras in plain sight. Could that be a problem later? Yes. The rhetoric used by McLaughlin about illegal immigrants is also laughably over the top. He refers to them as cockroaches, infections and plagues. Granted that this is supposed to be schlocky bombast, but couldn't we have a teensy bit of subtlety in our villain, instead of the racist, sexist, violent cartoon character redneck here? The politics involved here is too broad and simplified, and obvious, to be at home in what should be light, escapist fare. At one point, a lunky bodyguard says, "You know, I've been thinking. We let these people into our homes, watch our kids, park our cars. But we won't let them into our country. Does that make any sense to you?" Incisive social commentary this is not. If Rodriguez wants to comment on immigration, great. But keep it out of exploitation films. Try writing an essay.
Machete is at its best in its unselfconscious action scenes, when a grim faced Danny Trejo wades through his enemies like the hand of death, slaughtering all in his path. It's here that we get a taste of what Rodriguez did so well in Planet Terror, the unabashed reveling in over the top carnage. When Machete and his followers roll up on the vigilante camp to confront Von and McLaughlin and Torrez, we can forget the too facile plot devices and bad jokes and enjoy watching scantily clad Michelle Rodriguez blow things up and kill people and Lindsay Lohan dressed as a nun wreaking havoc. Gonzo violence and hot girls are what Machete is all about at heart, and where the focus should be. The film has a lot going for it, and is generally fun to watch if one tunes out the unwelcome aspects. It's recommended with some reservations, and regrets that Rodriguez didn't make it as good as it could have been.
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Please remember that this review is based on a check disc. No comment can be made on the quality or quantity of the extras included on the final product.