Machete began life as one of the mock trailers for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s ode to exploitation films, Grindhouse. The money shot of the trailer featured Danny Trejo flying through the air on a motorcycle with a mini-gun attached to it as everything explodes behind him. If that didn’t make you want to see a full-fledged Machete film, then you must not have a pulse.
Trejo is one of the most recognizable character actors working today thanks to a body littered with tattoos and a weathered face that looks like he was carved from well-worn granite. He spent over a decade in prisons like San Quentin and Soledad before going legit and getting into the movie industry thanks to ex-con and Reservoir Dogs star Eddie Bunker. Trejo’s first job was for 1986’s Runaway Train as a bit player and boxing trainer for Eric Roberts. Since then, he’s seen as a heavy in films like Heat, Con Air, and Desperado, his first collaboration with Rodriguez. It was then that Rodriguez was inspired to write the original screenplay for Machete with Trejo using his prowess with bladed weapons for good, instead of evil.
The prologue begins with Machete, a hard-assed Federale, heading into a showdown with the ruthless drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal with a noticeable paunch). The opening has about half a dozen decapitations and a naked woman pulling a cell phone out of a very secure area of her body. That pretty much sets the wild tone for the rest of the film. Torrez murders Machete’s wife and leaves him for dead.
Of course, Machete survives and three years later, he has relocated to Austin, Texas where he ekes out a modest living as a day laborer. He befriends Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a taco vendor who runs an underground network to provide work and safe harbor for illegal immigrants. Both of them are being watched by Sartana (Jessica Alba), a sympathetic agent for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
One day, Machete is approached by wealthy businessman Booth (Jeff Fahey) for a lucrative job. Not knowing who he really is, Booth hires Machete to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), a Texas politician running a no-tolerance campaign against illegal immigrants. He compares them to parasites and terrorists and advocates an electrified border fence. The Senator is in league with Lt. Von Jackson (Don Johnson), a fanatical border patrolman and leader of a pack of vigilantes that make the Minutemen look like the Girl Scouts. As it turns out, Booth is actually McLaughlin’s campaign aide and is framing Machete to drum up support for his boss in the election. On top of that, all the bad guys are working for Torrez. It’s the kind of excessively complicated plot hilariously lampooned in another exploitation homage, Black Dynamite.
Just to get it out of the way, yes, Machete is a film touching upon hot button topics. While it is obvious where Robert Rodriguez’s sympathies lie, you could hardly call it a politically charged movie. It is hard to take any accusations against the film seriously since the film hardly takes itself seriously. It is doubtful Machete will incite a race war with Mexicans riding into battle in lowriders armed with rocket launchers.
Rodriguez shares directing duties with editor Ethan Maniquis and both thoroughly maintain the picture’s over-the-top tone. Machete dispatches his foes in all manner of gruesome methods. Machete doesn’t just use his namesake weapon; he also utilizes surgical implements and gardening tools. In one scene, he repels down the side of a building using a man’s intestines. Machete isn’t just a fighter; he’s a lover too, bedding down nearly every beautiful lady he encounters. Rodriguez accentuates every love scene by breaking out the 70’s porno music.
Rodriguez and Maniquis know how to shoot action and they know hot to shoot their lovely starlets. Michelle Rodriguez looks particularly sultry with an eye patch and half t-shirt while firing off a double-barreled shotgun. Then, there’s Jessica Alba whose shapely figure is on display during a shower scene though the naughty bits have been strategically hidden.
After making a career of playing anonymous henchmen, Trejo finally gets his chance to shine and he doesn’t disappoint. He fits seamlessly into the lead role. He may not have matinee idol looks, but he has a ‘Don’t F—k with Me’ aura about him. The craggily face and the badass presence are definitely reminiscent of Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin. He’s a man of few words, speaking only in short, terse sentences. Don’t ever ask Machete to send you a text message either. ”Machete don’t text.”
With Trejo as his star, Rodriguez fills out the supporting cast with an eclectic assortment of actors. The oddball selection shouldn’t work, but it does as just about everyone plays their parts to a tee. Don Johnson’s cruel border guard is far removed from the pastel wearing Sonny Crockett and Jeff Fahey is wonderfully odious as the crooked Booth. DeNiro affects a Southern accent not too dissimilar to Max Cady from Cape Fear Many of the director’s usual players are also present in Machete including: Cheech Marin as a shotgun-toting priest, Tom Savini as a hired gun who offers his services with 1-800-HITMAN, and former Spy Kid Daryl Sabara as a wannabe cholo. Lindsay Lohan is cast in type as a drug-addled socialite, but doesn’t seem to understand the joke.
Much like Grindhouse, Machete uses artificial scratches on the film stock to give it that vintage feel. It also recycles several scenes originally shot for the trailer.