Based on the mock trailer featured at the beginning of Grindhouse (2007), Robert Rodriguez’ Machete captures and reproduces every idiosyncratic detail of the exploitation genre, from the clumsy social commentary in between gooey blood splatters to the pointless naked orgy with mother and daughter. In fact, I contend the movie would have made a worthier introduction to the series than Planet Terror, which was schlock, all right, but not the kind of schlock you’d find in the seventies.
Anyway, Machete tells of Isador Cortez, codenamed Machete, a Mexican federale turned knife-wielding vigilante. He’s played by Dani Trejo, whose worn features alone are enough to flesh out a dozen cardboard personalities like this one. Incidentally, the anti-hero looks a lot like one of the villains from Desperado (1995), the writer-director’s first theatrical release. Unfortunately, he’s not the same character, or at least he inhabits a different universe, one devoid of the Mariachi series’ romance. Instead, we get flying limbs and rubber intestines for wall climbers.
The plot proves as complicated as it is stupid, something I mention as a statement of fact, not a judgment. We’ve got four villains: political lobbyist Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), Texas senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), Mexican drug lord Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal), and militia leader Von Jackson (Don Johnson). Booth hires Machete to kill McLaughlin, whose entire platform is based on a racist stance on illegal immigration. However, the operation turns out a plot by Torrez to vilify Mexican immigrants, and our hero soon uncovers a conspiracy that somehow leads to all-out war with Jackson and his Minute Men stand-ins.
Along the way, Machete meets two beautiful women (yet sleeps with four): an immigration officer played by the gorgeous Jessica Alba and a Mexican revolutionary named Shé (a tasteless play on Che Guevara) portrayed by the even more ravishing Michelle Rodriguez. It’s not often I proclaim an actress hotter than the star of Dark Angel, but there’s something to be said about Rodriguez’ bad girl charisma and larger-than-life take on the character (I’m referring to Michelle, not Robert). I found myself desperately wanting a spinoff with the eye-patch wearing badass, which I guess is how Rodriguez’ mind operates (I’ve switched to Robert now).
My main issue lies at the core of the Grindhouse concept, which pays tribute to bad movies by emulating their goofiest excesses. As such, the more an entry in the series succeeds, the more insipid it becomes. Consider the opening action sequence, in which our hero crashes a car into a crack house and slaughters Torrez’ henchmen in increasingly gory ways. The effects are terrible; the choreography proves laughable; and the fact it’s all done on purpose does little to captivate my senses. Simply put, I got bored during Machete, which spends an hour and forty-five minutes repeating the same joke over and over again.
Mind you, I like the bit in which Booth’s henchmen casually discuss their employer’s politics, and the screenplay does aspire to some commentary regarding the immigration controversy at the time, but it’s drowned in so much fury as to feel unpleasant. As hilarious as they may be, lines like, “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us,” reflect a state of mind seldom seen in Robert Rodriguez. He’s usually such a joyous filmmaker. Moreover, I have a hard time deciphering exactly how the director feels about illegal immigration. I suppose that isn’t the point. It certainly wasn’t during the debates in Texas and Arizona, which never bothered to differentiate between “illegals” and legitimate Mexican immigrants.
The pundits’ discourse was about race, and Rodriguez understands this. In response, he seems to have created in Machete the Mexican equivalent to seventies blacksploitation (hispanoitation?), an adolescent fantasy that denounces its social context with abandon but offers little chance for discussion. I applaud the director for choosing to express his anger through harmless entertainment just as I admire his craft in reproducing the intricacies of subpar filmmaking. However, now I want him to do something different with his skills, something productive.