Film Review: Machete

Robert Rodriguez’s unofficial sequel to his half of 'Grindhouse' is a lot like its predecessor—gory, funny and, in the end, somewhat disappointing.

As Grindhouse fans no doubt recall, Robert Rodriguez opened his Planet Terror portion of that 2007 double feature with a trailer for a fake “Mexploitation” picture entitled Machete. The very funny clip featured Rodriguez mainstay Danny Trejo as the title character, a Mexican federale-turned-vigilante who takes bloody revenge on the men who framed him for a crime he didn’t commit. Three years later, Rodriguez has turned what appeared to be a one-off gag into a full-length feature, complete with the same storyline, actors (including Trejo as the hero, Jeff Fahey as the heavy and Cheech Marin as a gun-toting priest) and scenes featured in that early teaser.

Of course, since the movie runs 105 minutes compared to the trailer’s two-and-a-half, a number of additions have been made. For example, the trailer included no mention of Machete’s colleague-in-vengeance Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a taco-truck vendor who’s in charge of a secret organization of illegal Mexican immigrants known only as The Network. Also absent was Jessica Alba’s conflicted immigration officer who first hunts, then helps Machete; Robert De Niro’s corrupt state senator whose assassination Machete is hired to carry out before he realizes it’s all a set-up, and Steven Seagal’s Mexican drug lord who knows the dangers of a pissed-off Machete all too well.

Rodriguez co-directed Machete with his longtime editor Ethan Maniquis and his auteurist stamp is most keenly felt in the film’s pre-credits prologue—which mimics Planet Terror’s faux-grindhouse aesthetic right down to the choppy edits and the grainy cinematography—and the comically ultraviolent action sequences. (It would be cruel to spoil too many of the film’s best and bloodiest gags, but a personal favorite finds Machete slicing open a henchman’s belly and using his intestinal tract as a rope swing to escape through a hospital window.) The rest of the movie is more blandly conventional in terms of its staging and visual style, suggesting that compulsive multi-tasker Rodriguez handed over the bulk of the non-action material to Maniquis in order to focus on one of his many other jobs—producer, composer, editor, take your pick.

It’s left to the cast to keep the film’s energy up during the moments where bullets aren’t flying, and the actors mostly rise to the occasion. Veterans of more self-serious action fare like De Niro, Fahey, Seagal and Don Johnson (playing a racist lawman clearly modeled on infamous Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio) merrily send up their hard-boiled screen images, while Alba and Rodriguez bring a welcome comic edge to their traditional tough-girl roles. As for Trejo, he’s a limited actor, but the filmmakers use that to their advantage, treating him as the silent but deadly straight man in a movie otherwise populated by outlandish caricatures. In the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, he commands the screen with his physicality and instantly memorable visage.

Much like Planet Terror and the recent Piranha 3D, another homage to old-school exploitation pictures, Machete is largely played as a spoof—think The Naked Gun with a higher body count. At the same time, though, Rodriguez and his co-writer Alvaro Rodriguez (the director’s cousin) do have serious issues on their minds, using the film as a vehicle to pointedly tweak the anti-immigration rhetoric expressed by a certain segment of the American public, as well as some prominent media figures and elected officials. None of the movie’s political humor is subtle, but then again, Rodriguez has never been much for subtlety. He can’t restrain himself from chasing after bigger jokes, bigger melodrama and bigger set-pieces. That’s the main reason why his movies so often wind up getting away from him in the end, and Machete is no exception. The film is at least 20 minutes too long and a good deal of time could have been saved by trimming the climactic battle royale, which contains three more climaxes than necessary. The full-length Machete is exactly the movie its trailer promised and while it entertains throughout, you’d ultimately get the same overall experience watching the 2007 teaser on YouTube.