Machete is the closest thing I've ever seen to a real-life animated cartoon on screen. Granted, we're talking about a graphically violent, sexually explicit, overly profane cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless. Imagine "Tom & Jerry" in an alternate universe in which cat and mouse gore and decapitate their victims, carouse with topless women and refer to themselves in third-person, and you have the latest film from the brilliantly warped mind of Robert Rodriguez.
Fans of Rodriguez will be quick to recognize Machete and some of its main characters from a fake trailer that aired during Grindhouse, the entertaining 2007 old-school horror double feature film that Rodriguez directed with Quentin Tarantino. I re-watched that trailer on YouTube after seeing Machete and to my delight discovered a few of the exact scenes from the parody are included in the film, while others are the same except with a different actor.
To enjoy Machete is to embrace a film that goes so far over the top in its violence and sheer ballsiness that it leaves you no choice but to smile as it plays out in unabashed gore. It is yet another loving homage by Rodriguez to the B-movies of 35 years ago, and perhaps one of the strangest advocacy films ever made. Yes, though convoluted by its beheadings, weed wacker maimings and crucifixions, I'm pretty sure there's a message here about the failure of United States immigration policy.
But it's best not to linger on the politics. Instead, enjoy a cast of characters that ranges from living legends (Robert De Niro as a deliciously evil state senator) to certified D-listers (hello, Lindsey Lohan!). In between Rodriguez gives us Cheech Marin as a pot-smoking, gun-loving priest, the triumphant return of Steven Seagal, and Michelle Rodriguez leading a revolution while wearing stripper outfits. And what's not to like about a film that "introduces" us to Don Johnson?
- Who wants a hug?
Then there is the title character, a former Mexican Federale who finds himself living on the streets of Texas three years after drugpins kill his family. As they say, he is a man without a country (no, seriously, that's an actual line of dialogue). Danny Trejo, who without a doubt is the most intimidating 66-year-old on the planet, plays Machete. He is the Hispanic Hulk, scarred and tattooed, wrinkled and angry. When a smooth Texas businessman offers Machete $150,000 cash to assassinate an anti-immigrant zealot state senator (De Niro), our hero knows it's probably a trap but takes the job anyway.
From there we're off and running on a one hour and 45 minute romp in which you can count on at least one person getting impaled, sliced or run over in every scene. Machete, as you might expect, prefers a long knife as his weapon of choice, and he goes about his business in a wry, methodical manner, always with a twinkle in his eye. Machete speaks mostly with his facial expressions, which is good because he's a man of few words. When he does talk, it tends to be in stunted sentences with one-syllable words, and often in third person; "Machete don't text" may be my favorite line.
As it turns out, a good rule of thumb for the film is the less an actor talks, the more enjoyable the character. Trejo is at the top of this pyramid, followed by Marin as Machete's long-lost brother who runs his church in a most unconventional manner. Then there's Seagal, playing a Mexican drug lord in his first mainstream film since 2002. He's gained about 50 pounds since his Under Siege days, but he's a wonderful bad guy here, delivering kingpin clichés without regard to the irony. It came as a shock to learn Seagal turns 60 next year, but he still manages to pull off the tanned, greasy-haired villain like a man 20 years his junior.
In what must have been a stretch, Lohan plays the drugged-out wannabe porn star daughter of one the antagonists. She's only in a few scenes, and that may be why I found her the least annoying of the female characters. The two lead actresses are the film's biggest disappointment. As the leader of a mysterious resistance movement against anti-immigrant forces, Michelle Rodriguez has her moments but all her dialogue trying to explain that movement gets cumbersome. Even worse is Jessica Alba as the U.S. immigration officer who forms an alliance of sorts with Machete. In a film in which just about every character is a one-dimensional cartoon, Alba somehow manages to be boring and unbelievable.
Machete is ultimately powered by the testosterone of a one-man killing machine. Does it get old? Yes, but thankfully not until the end, by which point we're so desensitized to the over-the-top violence that the entertainment value is diminished. But give Rodriguez credit for turning a three-minute joke trailer into a feature farce. We can only hope that he's not joking about the two promised sequels advertised during the end credits. Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again sound like films I could go see.
Machete continues at the Village 6.