Status: In theaters (opened 9/3/10)
Directed By: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis
Written By: Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodríguez
Cinematographer: Jimmy Lindsey
Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal
In 2007’s Grindhouse, I thought that Robert Rodriguez did a better job of adhering to the gimmick with his Planet Terror than Quentin Tarantino did with his entry, Death Proof. Among those two main attractions, Grindhouse also featured several fake trailers for other would-be B-movies, and one of them, Machete, was so good that Rodriguez has now made it into an actual B-movie. Unfortunately, in expanding the seed of an idea that played so hilariously well in Grindhouse, he’s shown that he too, like Tarantino 3 years ago, hasn’t enough schlock to keep up the joke.
You come into a movie like this expecting non-stop action, over-the-top gore, and ridiculous scenarios—both in terms of the plot itself, and in the way it plays out. But Rodriguez, who co-wrote the feature-length version of Machete with his cousin Álvaro and co-directed it with his frequent editor Ethan Maniquis, seems unable to hold up his end of the bargain. Don’t get me wrong; the film has many instances of the familiar B-movie tropes you’d expect, but Rodriguez also seems to have given in to the realities of A-movie marketing, and Machete ends up attempting to straddle the line between being pure exploitative guilty-pleasure trash and having an actual story to tell. The disappointing part isn’t that the story is terribly bad, but that it only serves here to get in the way of what should have been, in my opinion, a completely vacuous movie.
In a tried-and-true set-up, Machete (Danny Trejo), a Mexican federale, sees his wife and daughter murdered by drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). Rather than going on a bloody vengeance rampage, though, Machete retreats to Texas to live as a common day laborer. Rodriguez seems to think that making a straightforward revenge flick wouldn’t be enough, and so Machete must get wrapped up in not only an underground network that helps to bring illegal aliens across the border, but also in the heated political debate over the issue. The network is headed by an innocuous-looking woman named Luz (Michelle Rodriguez—no relation to the writer-director). The Texans opposing her include a gung-ho border-vigilante cowboy (Don Johnson), an overzealous state Senator (Robert De Niro), and the Senator’s assistant (Jeff Fahey). In the middle of it all is an ambitious yet conflicted Immigration agent of Mexican descent (Jessica Alba).
Machete is reluctant to involve himself in this issue-of-the-day tale, but unfortunately for him the topicality of this movie is the one thing he’s not strong enough to overcome. Danny Trejo’s stoic expressions define the character, but the character does not define the film; instead, he ends up more often than not functioning as a bystander to the politics playing out around him. When he gets the chance to get his hands dirty, Machete realizes its more banal aspirations: the action scenes are bloody and satisfyingly ridiculous. And in true fashion, Machete always has time to shed his leather jacket when one of the many beautiful ladies surrounding him needs a little extra attention, and the gratuitous violence is sparingly matched with gratuitous nudity (it’s a pleasant surprise when Lindsay Lohan is added to this tally). The sex scenes—which, like much of the rest of the movie, I found to be disappointingly tame—also allow Rodriguez a chance to show the completeness of his talents: his band, Chingon, provides the music. While it’s repetitive in its generic porniness, it helps give Machete the levity that it’s too often missing.
The movie has its moments, no doubt, but more often than not they’re buried behind its focus on a story that just tends to get in the way. Machete moves slowly at times, which is certainly something I never expected going into it. It’s fun in its ridiculousness, when it allows itself to be ridiculous, but too often it tries to be taken seriously, to make a point. Not that it’s not a decent point to try to make, but it just doesn’t fit in this kind of movie. Planet Terror had the formula right, but with Machete some key ingredients seem to have been forgotten. We do get to see Danny Trejo on a chopper with a minigun mounted on the front, and Jessica Alba gets to deliver one of the most hilariously over-the-top rally cries ever put to film, but by the time this climax comes it feels like Rodriguez is doing it reluctantly because he knows that’s why we’re there, rather than because it’s really the movie he wants to make.