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With Machete, Robert Rodriguez demolishes subtlety with the same force that Rome unleashed on Carthage. Every joke is as broad as the Continental Divide. No opportunity for onscreen violence is overlooked. Gore is as plentiful as fresh tequila at a distillery, and female skin is visible by the acre.
Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis (who has previously assisted Rodriguez in the editing room) are not simply content to parody ‘70s exploitation films like Shaft and Street Fighter. These guys obviously love the drive-in films of that era and, more importantly, aim for and provide the same guilt inducing thrills. There’s a strange purity to the perversion that is Machete. It’s hard not to love a movie that makes so few concessions to good taste.
One look at the film’s title character gives viewers the sense they are in for a wild ride. Former boxer and Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo plays a killing machine with a body count higher than malaria. With his weather-beaten features, broad shoulders and long, shaggy hair, Trejo’s Machete Cortez looks as if he could scare off a wild puma or even kill it with his bare hands. As the film’s opening suggests, he probably already has.
Women also find his fearsomely haggard looks and forthright manner irresistible. Viewers never actually see Machete getting in touch with his inner romantic, but once he and a leading lady start glancing at each other, some porno funk starts blasting on the soundtrack, letting us in on what will happen next.
In a raid to stop a powerful Mexican drug lord named Torrez (Steven Seagal, yes, that Steven Seagal), lethal Mexican federale Machete manages to single-handedly take out every henchman in the kingpin’s lair, relying primarily on the weapon he’s named for, as well as any sharp object he can find.
Despite killing enough thugs to fill a morgue for weeks, the raid backfires, and Machete is forced to head north to the United States and work as a day laborer. Now, he’s in greater danger. A gang of Anglo border vigilantes led by Lt. Von Stillman (Don Johnson) shoots anyone crossing the border on sight. There’s also the rabidly right-wing Texas state Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) who feverishly campaigns on a platform of draconian punishment for illegal immigration. He even sends supporters DVDs of himself shooting at border crossers.
A local businessman named Michael Benz (Jeff Fahey), who needs the cheap labor undocumented workers provide, notices that Machete can survive incidents that would probably kill others. He offers the destitute crime fighter $150,000 to shoot McLaughlin. Before Machete can say no, Benz threatens to turn Machete into immigration authorities if he refuses.
Of course, it’s a setup, and all the bad guys are working together. But Machete is bursting with enough outrageous characters and situations to make an audience forget every other cheap revenge action picture they’ve seen before. The bizarre casting is part of the charm. De Niro, Johnson and Seagal seem to love playing against type, and their winking performances make some of the bloodshed seem less shocking.
Machete also has to keep his eye on the women he encounters. Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) may be Latina, but she’s got no qualms with sending undocumented workers back to their country of origin. Michelle Rodriguez (no relation to Robert) is just about right as a taco vender who’s secretly leading a network of people who help recent immigrants. It’s also a riot to see Lindsay Lohan playing Benz’s drug addicted, Internet porn queen daughter. Yes, it’s typecasting, but it’s still funny. So is featuring Cheech Marin as a double-barreled priest. When one of Benz’s thugs asks for mercy, he replies, “God has mercy; I don’t!”
With this cast of crazies, Machete himself seems, well, normal.
This film was inspired by a phony trailer that ran during Rodriguez’s previous movie Grindhouse. It includes all the fun bits from the faux preview and has plenty of bizarre new sequences to go with them. As with most of his movies, Rodriguez paces the tale with NASCAR speed and kitchen sink gags. If a gag or line falls flat, there are about 20 new ones to take its place before the film ends. His vivid imagination and solid visual sense makes the most outrageous images seem oddly convincing. When he takes out bad guys, Machete uses their remains in effective ways that God never intended.
He also succeeds by embracing the silliness of his ideas. The final showdown between Lt. Stillman’s border vigilantes and some extremely well armed low riders (complete with bouncing cars) is funny because every stereotype imaginable is mercilessly lampooned. Any sort of restraint would have probably taken the life out of these gags. The phony campaign ads for Senator McLaughlin are a scream and sound frighteningly close to what actual politicians are saying.
Rodriguez and his collaborators are so in love with ‘70s movies that they even put scratches in the prologue to make it look as if it were a lost artifact. Machete may not be imitating the classics of the Me Decade, but at least Rodriguez and his crew haven’t.
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