Machete (2010) was born of a lark: a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a border revenge movie that never was, created by Robert Rodriguez for the B-movie tribute Grindhouse he made with Quentin Tarantino. Three years later, the fantasy became a feature.
Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez favorite) is the former Mexican federalé who turns into a one-man strike force after his family is massacred by a drug lord (Steven Seagal) and he’s framed for the attempted assassination of a corrupt Senator (Robert De Niro) by his drug-dealing campaign manager (Jeff Fahey).
De Niro’s drawling politico plays the anti-immigration card as a racist scare campaign (he secretly funds a vigilante border patrol run by Don Johnson and uses the patrols as a target range with moving targets) as Rodriquez turns Machete into the protector of the downtrodden immigrants of Texas who fill the lowest-rung of the job market. It’s no coincidence that this hatchet-faced hero uses the tools of Mexican laborers to do most of his battling—hedge clippers, weed eaters, cooking utensils and his weapon of choice, the machete.
Don’t call it political subtext, though. Rodriguez’s politics are right on the surface and about as complex as the revenge plot, a kind of populist response to the anti-immigration rhetoric from the more extreme margins of the political echo chamber. Rather, this is Rodriguez’s Latino answer to the blaxpoitation action films of the seventies, complete with Trejo as an accidental sweet sweetback sex machine, irresistible to every woman he meets without making the slightest overture to toward them.
Jessica Alba brings absolutely no credibility to the role of a tough, maverick ICE agent but she still melts the screen with a smile. Michelle Rodriguez carries among the featured actresses as an immigrant rights activist who runs the underground railway of illegal border crossings and keeps them connected in a network of underclass workers ready to fight for their piece of Promised Land. Lindsay Lohan pokes her own bad girl image as the Senator’s drug-addict, party girl daughter who, of course, parties with Machete (courtesy of a body double). And Seagal who can’t keep his accent consistent, let alone convincing, as the pudgiest Mexican drug lord yet seen in the movies.
It’s as a slipshod as any Rodriguez film, directed with more energy and momentum than care or clarity, just like a real exploitation film shot on the run. Rodriguez isn’t much of a craftsman and seems to thrive on the energy of shooting down and dirty, even when he has the budget to take his time. It gives the film a shaggy sense of fun appropriate to his B-movie politics and cult movie quoting, which he manages without the ingenuity or reinvention of Tarantino. Just see Lohan become the avenging nun of Ms. 45 or Rodriguez take the part of the one-eyed avenger from Thriller that Tarantino referenced in the Kill Bill movies. Where they become organic elements that shape his characters under Tarantino’s hand, Rodriguez just tosses them in as more ingredients in his southern-baked gumbo.
Rodriguez codirects with Ethan Maniquis, and Cheech Marin, Shea Whigham, Daryl Sabara, and Tom Savini costar.
Rodriguez usually piles on the supplements of his DVDs but this is a pretty slim release on both DVD and Blu-ray. The extras are limited to 10 minutes of deleted scenes (worth checking to see an entire excised subplot involving Jessica Alba’s alcoholic slut of a twin sister and a couple of scenes featuring Rose McGowan as a sexy assassin in a page cut) and an utterly unnecessary and completely distracting audience reaction audio track.