The great, if terrifying, Danny Trejo finally lands his signature role, as an ex-Federale hired to assassinate a virulently anti-immigrant U.S. Senator (a brilliantly hammy Robert De Niro). Trejo discovers too late that the job is a set-up, manufactured by the Senator’s aide to boost the representative’s chances of re-election. Suddenly a wounded fugitive, Trejo sets out with an eclectic mix of characters to take down the people responsible for the double-cross.
Machete began as one of the terrific faux trailers in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation epic, Grindhouse (2007). That short promised a cornucopia of violence, blood, gore and sex (as required by the genre), and Rodriguez has somewhat delivered on that promise with his full-length feature.
The movie opens with decapitations and gun blasts to the head, and pretty much sustains its action for nearly two hours. Things are helped along nicely by a roster of has-been, washed-up, whatever-happened-to, and oh-my-God-remember-him actors, including: Jeff Fahey, in a nice turn as the ruthless Senator’s aide; an unrecognizable Don Johnson as a vigilante border guard; Cheech Marin as a morally questionable priest–who also happens to be Trejo’s brother; Michelle Rodriguez, all hard edge and bite, as a resistance leader who hides her operation behind a taco truck; and Lindsay Lohan, in a strange appendix role as Fahey’s slutty daughter. Don’t even ask about the bloated Steven Seagal, playing the head of a Mexican drug cartel, who slips in and out of his accent with startling frequency. He’s either from Juarez or Jersey, depending on the scene.
Rodriguez got the mechanics of the exploitation genre right, but he missed the heart of it. A truly great grindhouse film should, on some base level, offend its viewer–either through moral ambiguity or downright poor taste; Machete does neither. Here, a priest being nailed to a cross is played for laughs, and a scene where Trejo makes out with a mother and her daughter in a waterfall pool is cut short. The movie pulls all its punches. It looks and feels high-gloss, and the over-the-top violence, though abundant, seems paradoxically too tame for its inspiration. And while the political message about illegal immigration is satirized for all its worth, it ultimately becomes tiresome and as subtle as a sledge-hammer to the head. Rodriguez had an opportunity to transcend the genre, but with Machete, he merely tip-toes in its shadow.