Directed by Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay by Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodríguez
Danny Trejo as Machete
Robert De Niro as Senator McLaughlin
Jessica Alba as Sartana
Steven Seagal as Torrez
Michelle Rodriguez as Luz
Jeff Fahey as Booth
Cheech Marin as Padr
Don Johnson as Lt. Stillman
Shea Whigham as Sniper
Lindsay Lohan as April
“Machete” is Robert Rodriguez’s best movie in years,
and his most political.
Robert Rodriguez has been called a lot of things: awesome, exploitative, prolific, Robert… but high-minded? That’s a new one. Rodriguez slices and dices his way back onto the screen with Machete, a flamboyantly manly action film based on the standalone trailer from Grindhouse, about an ex-Federale swept up in an anti-immigration conspiracy. Along the way he maims, murders and/or fornicates every living thing in sight. He is a living legend: a Schwarzenegger for the other side of the border. He is Machete, and Robert Rodriguez views him as a living God of Mexican Pride who both confirms and overpowers every stereotype imaginable with his paradoxical blend of goodness and homicidal mania. If every illegal immigrant were this mindbogglingly incredible we’d be opening our borders and offering free t-shirts. But then, that’s kind of Rodriguez’s point: Maybe every illegal immigrant is this incredible. They’re human beings, after all.
Danny Trejo, who must either be Robert Rodriguez’s best friend or worst blackmailer to be given this kind of star treatment, stars as the titular character Machete, a heroic Federale whose family was murdered by the evil drug kingpin Torrez, played by Steven Seagal (who actually seems to be having fun for a change). Machete leaves Mexico for Texas, where illegal immigrants are second class citizens… except for the whole “citizen” part. Immigration is a hot button issue with cartoonishly conservative Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro, with better material than he’s used to lately), so a shady character named Booth (Jeff Fahey, never better) hires Machete blindly off the street to assassinate the troublesome politician. Everything immediately goes awry and Machete finds himself the most wanted man in America, the victim of a broader conspiracy involving politics, drugs and a giant electrified fence threatening to spread like wildfire across the Mexican/American border.
Machete was co-directed by Rodriguez’s editor Ethan Maniquis, but it’s unclear how the duties were divided between them: This feels like a Robert Rodriguez joint if there ever was one. Certainly they were both on the same page. Machete follows the Grindhouse school of filmmaking with a low-budget visual style punctuated by moments of striking imagination, often betraying the film’s larger-than-thematically-appropriate price tag. Like Planet Terror and Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Rodriguez pads out a pretty thin narrative with a myriad of distinctive supporting characters, from Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara as an adopted Chollo to a particularly naked Lindsay Lohan, who spends most of her screentime with her Mom (Alicia Marek), who is also naked. Unlike Planet Terror and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, these digressions don’t get in the way of a coherent storyline, as they are all (with the slight exception of the stunt-casted Lohan) connected to Rodriguez’s recurring theme of building modern Mexican legends.
Rodriguez of course began his career with El Mariachi, a genuinely low-budget action classic about a normal guitar-toting street musician fighting for his life after being mistaken for a deadly assassin. The film combined elements of classic Hitchcock (mistaken identities, everyman action heroes) and classic John Woo (the visual aesthetic and focus on shootouts) to turn the harmless mariachi archetype into a warrior myth. While Rodriguez also explored this character to some success in Desperado, which found our mariachi struggling to boost his own urban legend despite the fact that he’s obviously a lovable goof, Once Upon a Time in Mexico rang false. The legend had been built, but the character himself disappeared in a fog of badass action movie clichés and self-congratulatory nonsense (entertaining though it may have been). Machete takes the opposite tack and presents itself up front as a 1980’s power fantasy. Machete has no character to speak of besides his belief in truth, justice and the illegal immigrant way. He’s shockingly violent to those who deserve it, and has sex with just about everyone else. Unlike Rodriguez’s original hero, Machete is born into his world fully realized as a Herculean superman. The lack of character development doesn’t detract from the story but instead informs every frame. This is a man of action. Thinking is a lesser concern.
So it’s amusing then that despite Machete’s broad humor and insanity-fueled action sequences (you’ll never look at a lower intestine the same way again) the film comes across as a valuable political document. Rodriguez and Maniquis mask their message movie in the machinations of mindless media. Not that theirs is a complicated concept: Immigrants are people too, they claim (shocking, I know), while also reminding audiences that there are other important issues at hand regarding the Mexican border; not just the flow of narcotics but also the very real fact that much of America depends on cheap migrant labor. It’s a little surprising to find that a film that embraces such flighty interpretations of entertainment as staring at Jessica Alba naked in the shower has such a well-conceived conspiracy at the heart of it all: complicated but plausible, even compared to larger mainstream hits like Quantum of Solace and Clash of the Titans. Not that Machete ever feels like an Oliver Stone film, but it’s a pleasant surprise to find that this supposedly brainless piece of mainstream entertainment has something on its mind other than Lindsay Lohan’s breasts, Jessica Alba’s ass and Michelle Rodriguez’s abdominal muscles.
But of course all of these noble ambitions result in little more than a series of massive shootouts where every character shows up even if they have no right, reason or even the address necessary to be there. Still, these are some wonderful shootouts, punctuating an equally wonderful film. Violent but never pessimistic, funny but still worth taking seriously, and sexy but surprisingly chaste (actually, that last part may not be a good thing). Rodriguez and Maniquis have succeeded not just in turning a joke trailer into a worthy film, but also in making Rodriguez’s best movie in years. Machete puts the “mind” back in “mindless entertainment,” and kicks your ass without ever insulting your intelligence.