Director Robert Rodriguez and producer Quentin Tarantino pick up where they left off with 2007’s epic feature Grindhouse. Based upon a Spy Kids character and a trailer from Grindhouse, Machete tells the story of an honest Mexican cop (!) who is screwed by his superiors who have sold out to the local drug lord. Machete (Danny Trejo) watches his wife get decapitated while the drug lord admits to also killing his small daughter. Left to die in a burning house, Machete miraculously escapes and sneaks across the border into the U.S. where he works as a day-laborer as he bides his time awaiting his revenge.
Machete gets set up for attempting to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) who is running on a platform of building an electrified fence along the entire 2000-mile U.S.-Mexican border. As Machete attempts to escape this latest frame-up, he must also deal with U.S. border agents, his arch-enemy Torrez (Steven Seagal as the Mexican drug lord), and a mysterious lady known only as She’ (think Che’) who has established a network for illegal aliens trying to cross the border. There is also a militia, lead by Von (Don Johnson) that has ratcheted up the "defense of the country" a notch or two by conducting nightly "turkey shoots" of illegals crossing the border. Through all this, Machete has to survive death at every turn, as well as the potential of arrest, in order to exact his revenge.
The opening of the film is very much like a true grindhouse experience with scratches and cigarette burns on the film and jumps and blips similar to the 2007 film. I am happy to report, however, that after the five-minute prologue that introduces you to both Machete and Torrez and sets up the basic plotline, Rodriguez forgoes the grindhouse look for a cleaner look to the film. However, viewers should not make the mistake of assuming that Rodriguez will completely abandon the grindhouse influence. The film is full of gratuitous violence and nudity, fights and explosions, and plenty of in-jokes and one-liners that remind you that this is supposed to be a fun trip back to the seventies when independent films were not only rough around the edges but rough in content as well. To that end, Rodriguez and Tarantino have most certainly succeeded. The result is a highly entertaining bloodbath of a film filled with beautiful women who aren’t afraid of taking their tops off.
Both Tarantino and Rodriguez have made careers of helping unknown actors make careers themselves or reinvigorating fading actors’ careers. They remain supercool enough to also entice some of today’s biggest names to take roles they probably wouldn’t even dream of taking if other filmmakers were trying to hire them. I guess they are legit enough that A-listers don’t mind taking a turn in what is intended to be nothing less than a B-grade slice of exploitation, and doing so with obvious relish. Witness DeNiro as the crooked Senator from Texas as well as Lindsey Lohan as a coked up ho (after all, how hard could that part be for her?) And yes, I am calling Lohan an A-lister because most A-listers get body doubles for their nude scenes just like she did. Don’t argue.
We also have great roles by Don Johnson (who hasn’t appeared in a major motion picture since 1996’s Tin Cup and has basically disappeared since Nash Bridges went off TV in 2001), Steven Seagal (off the big-screen since 2002), Jeff Fahey (primarily a television character actor), and the always funny Cheech Marin who plays Machete’s brother who happens to be a crooked priest. Even Tom Savini manages a small role as a middle eastern murderer-for-hire. I think the secret to Tarantino and Rodriguez’s use of huge ensemble casts of questionable quality is that because the cast is so large, each character is necessarily limited on film. This sparing use of each cast member allows each to shine without exposing any questionable acting ability.
The cast is (well) rounded out by Rodriguez fave Jessica Alba, the gorgeous Michelle Rodgriguez, and the aforementioned Lohan, as well as several other nubile vixens with no inhibitions and even less clothing. Say what you will about possible questionable casting, but Rodriguez is a genius at casting and is also an excellent director who manages to coax decent performances from even the secondary cast members.
I don’t think it’s a mistake that Rodriguez, who obviously is of Mexican descent, has created a modern-day parable about immigration. Effectively presenting both sides of the coin, he is able to be objective and not beat the viewer over the head with his opinions. In fact, he keeps what could have become a self-righteous undercurrent of social commentary from becoming just that by using a fierce and sometimes politically incorrect sense of humor about the whole mess. This allows the viewer to become aware of the issue without it getting in the way of the film’s fun.
And speaking of fun, if you are looking for some quality exploitation, this is it. Similar to Pirahna 3-D (also reviewed this month), this film is drenched in blood. Limbs are hacked off, heads are severed or explode entirely, holes are shot through people, and in one outrageous scene, Machete uses the intestines of one poor thug to hold on to as he jumps out of a window and crashes into the floor below. Similar to many grindhouse flicks, the film is quite mean-spirited as it is populated by lowlifes who have no respect for anyone. We see pregnant women get gunned down on the border, other illegals getting killed as they weep for their lives, a mother-daughter-Machete love scene in a swimming pool, and even the Senator’s own campaign manager sets him up to be shot! Religion isn’t spared either as a priest is crucified in his own sanctuary and, in one of the most ironic scenes, crack ho Lohan appears in full nun’s habit after sexing it up with Machete and her own mother. Also much like real grindhouse fare, the effects, while bloody, are not particularly realistic and it is fairly easy to pick out the CGI effects, but fun nonetheless. It is amazing to me the level of violence sneaking through the MPAA in recent times. I can’t imagine what an unrated director’s cut might contain.
There are plenty of in-jokes as well (is that a Hittori Hanzo sword as Steven Seagal’s weapon of choice?) and tons of action such as chases and explosions. Quite frankly, I am tired of films like this and Piranha 3-D getting trashed in reviews. Yes, they are violent, politically incorrect, rude, crude, and sometimes misogynistic. Guilty as charged. But if you walk into a theater showing a film with this or a similar title, what do you expect? If this is your kind of film, you will be pleased; if it isn’t, stay far away…and keep your mouth shut!