A film review by Craig J. Koban September 17, 2010


2010, R, 105 mins.

Danny Trejo: Machete / Steven Seagal: Torrez / Michelle Rodriguez: Luz / Jessica Alba: Sartana / Robert De Niro: Sen. McLaughlin / Jeff Fahey: Booth /  Cheech Marin: Padre / Lindsay Lohan: April / Don Johnson: Von

Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis / written by Robert Rodriguez and Alvaro Rodriguez

MACHETE marks a cinematic first.

It’s the only feature film that I'm aware of to be adapted from a fake preview trailer.  

You may fondly remember, as I sure did, the wickedly inventive and cheekily exploitative faux trailers that played before and in-between the two films that made up the GRINDHOUSE double feature back in 2007.  The first GRINDHOUSE film - PLANET TERROR, directed by Robert Rodriguez - had a terrific trailer that preceded it called MACHETE.  It featured an ex-Federale turned machete-wielding vigilante that engaged in an orgy of slice and dice mayhem while on his pursuit for revenge.  My single favourite image from that inspired bogus trailer was the sight of the Mexican anti-hero strapping a Gatling gun to a motorcycle and then hurtled it in the air like some sort of kamikaze missile of destruction.   

Now, I think that everyone that saw that trailer three years ago strongly believed that an actual film could be made from this material, and that is precisely what Rodriguez and his co-director, Ethan Maniquis (Rodriguez’ long-time editor) have aimed to do.  MACHETE is essentially the fake trailer remade into a near 120-minute feature and it, like GRINDHOUSE and the phony trailers it inspired, lovingly continues the schlocky, gratuitously over-the-top, exploitatively violent and politically incorrect overtones of the classic midnight B-grade films that Rodriguez, not doubt, had a steady diet of as a youngster.   

Not only does MACHETE engage in a pitch perfect mockery of the types of clichés and conventions that are ripe for affectionate ridicule, but it also shows how well Rodriguez and company understand this genre and, in turn, how well he delivers on everything we crave to expect from them.  MACHETE is purely preposterous through and through, but the film acknowledges that it’s nuttier than a fruitcake and goes balls to wall with throwing everything at the screen to create a pulp fiction inspired thrill ride of unadulterated sleaziness and blood-spurting excess.  Rodriguez shows his giddy, wide-eyed enthusiasm and love for this material, and it breathes through every waking moment of the film.  It’s tasteless, shallow, cartoonishly macabre and wantonly silly, but it never apologizes for its low rent eccentricities; it places them high on a pedestal of film geek worship. 

Best of all?  We finally get to see an action film where the great Danny Trejo gets top billing, making the first time in his 66-years that he gets such a macho honor.  Trejo is the kind of persona whose life story could be made into a film all on its own: He’s the actual cousin of Rodriguez (a fact that both were unaware of until the filming of DESPERADO); has actually done time in prison at San Quentin; and has battled substance abuse and alcohol problems for a better part of his life.  The movies have served as a cleansing agent for Trejo, as he has appeared in many supporting roles that we remember him from, even though some cannot put a name to his face.  And speaking of mugs…Trejo has one that was born to be in action thrillers: rough, coarse, wrinkly beyond recognition, but tough and battle hardened in ways that only a mother could love.  With his jet black oiled mane of hair framing his equally dark and sinister eyes and combined with a freakishly ripped physique adorned with multiple tattoos, Trejo is a monstrously hypnotic and inviting screen presence, and this is all on display in MACHETE.  He more than inhabits his avenger from Latino hell with a fire and brimstone charisma.  He also plays things absolutely straight, which acts as a counterweight to the rest of the film’s sheer ludicrousness. 

Trejo is supported in the film by, in my estimation, one of the most peculiar and diverse conglomeration of actors in an action film in a long time.  Trejo’s Machete is an ex-Federale that, during the film’s hilariously bombastic opening, has just been set up and left very much for dead by an evil and vindictive Mexican drug kingpin named Torrez (Steven Seagal, marking a return to theatrical features after an eight year hiatus…and looking unhealthily girthy).  Torrez is brutal, to say the least: he beheads Machete’s wife right in front of him and then later kills his daughter, leaving Machete all alone.  Yet, he makes one of the cardinal and most obligatory mistakes of all movie villains: he leaves Machete alive (yeah…right…like a guy that looks as positively badass as Machete would not want some revenge later?). 

The film then flash-forwards to the present where Machete now ekes out a modest loving as a day laborer with a bunch of other immigrant workers in America.  He still wants to avenge his family’s murder, but only when the time is right.  In the meantime, a local businessman and political spin doctor named Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey, playing an untrustworthy slimeball with a relish) gives Machete $150,000 to assassinate an up-and-coming Senator named McLaughlin (Robert De Niro…yes…that one!), a toxically racist, anti-immigration politician whose political ads – which are insanely politically incorrect – are hilarious.  Machete begrudgingly agrees to the task, but when his mission to kill the vile and reptilian Senator turns out to be yet another setup to frame him and make the Senator look more sympathetic to voters, Machete finds himself yet again on the run.  Geez…not only does he have to kill a Mexican drug dealer, but also a U.S. politician and his accomplice.  This Mexican is busy.

Machete is befriended by three unlikely allies, the first being, yes, a taco stand operator named Luz (a sexier than normal Michelle Rodriguez) that may or may not be an underground, messiah figure that fights for immigrant rights.  The second is another hot babe, Sartana (Jessica Alba), an immigration officer that has been trying to discover Luz' real motives so she can apprehend her.  Predictably, Machete does manage to befriend the two women – and get down and dirty with the both of them (it’s a testament to these two very attractive female actresses that they are willing to lock lips with Trejo).  Machete’s third ally is his brother (and "padre"), a Catholic priest played by Creech Marin that has an very, very un-Catholic penchant for shotgun justice, f-bomb riddled one-liners, and weed.  Machete, both directly and indirectly via Luz and Sartana’s assistance, manages to discover a connection between McLaughlin, a red-necked bigoted vigilante (played by Nash Bridges himself, Don Johnson, who gets the amusing credit in the film “And Introducing Don Johnson), and Seagal’s rotund, but intimidating, Torrez.  Realizing that he’s in for the fight of his life, Machete grabs his…uh…machete…and prepares for the massive, multi-tiered assault/slaughter to come. 

MACHETE lovingly has just about everything: ultra-cool and invincible heroes; a smorgasbord of nefarious villains; hopelessly, but joyously cheesy one-liners (my favourite being, “Machete don’t text!”); gorgeous women and ample female nudity (especially on display during a three way between Machete and Michael Booth’s daughter and wife…yikes); and, of course, a cringe worthy level of truly gruesome carnage that, if you go in with the right frame of mind, becomes almost laughable if you consider its sheer and limitless audacity.   Some of the scenes need to be seen to be literally believed:  A car, at one point, is used to kill a man in ways never before thought of; a hand gun is taken by Machete while it still has a victim’s severed hand in it; garden tools are utilized by the title hero in fiendishly inventive ways; a man’s intestinal track – yuck – is used as a getaway rope for Machete to swing out of a building full of baddies (never seen that before); and, make no mistake about it, we definitely get to see Machete slash, stab, and behead multiple victims with an improbably long razor sharp machete.  If that were not euphorically inane enough, we also get to see – no, really – Lindsay Lohan appear late in the film wearing a nun’s uniform blowing guys away with a .357 magnum that’s bigger than her.  MACHETE is a message film (anti-immigration policies = bad) with a scandalously amount of impeachable luridness. 

Trejo is a blood thirsty and limb and head severing monster of a man that is an unapologetic blast to watch, and his supporting players are a hoot too, especially the ones that precisely know what kind of film they’re occupyingFahey is a despicable delight as one of the film’s antagonists, and Seagal – although shockingly bloated, what happened to this guy? – gives one of his more restrained and coldly effective performances as the chief bad guy (his final moment in the film is both a stomach churning a knee-slapping howler) and De Niro in particular understands how to deftly play his weasel-minded politician role both straight and manically.  That, and the sight of him, at one point, incognito in dusty and withered Mexican immigrant apparel while packing heat and taking names is irreproachably hilarious.  De Niro, to his credit, is a very good sport here.

Alba’s immigration official, unfortunately, is the film’s weak link (it’s never quite settled whether the actress understands if she should play things things seriously or broadly for the purposes of satire, although a scene where she gives a rousing speech to a group of disaffected immigrants is a scream (“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!”).  That, and the film is too long for its own good (it begins to lose momentum past the 90 minute mark, which is how long it should have been).  Nonetheless, MACHETE is an insatiably digestible splattergorium of manic overkill that is hard not to appreciate for its grotesque fun factor.  Like the fake trailer that inspired it, it’s B-grade cinema made with A-grade production values and stars (well, most of them are A-grade) that goes for absolute broke and euphorically winks at its sources both with derision and affection.  To its credit, the film never once settles down to catch its breath, even during the final credits, where the reveal of the “next two” Machete movie titles gets a large chuckle.   MACHETE is early-fall movie season junk food that is unholy, unwholesome, and unhealthy...but I feverously ate it up all the same.

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