He looked like just another day laborer from the streets, and the perfect fall guy for a crooked political assassination. But he turned out to be Machete (Danny Trejo), a legendary ex-Federale with a deadly attitude and the skills to match. Left for dead after clashing with notorious Mexican drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal), Machete has escaped to Texas, looking to disappear and forget his tragic past. But what he finds is a web of corruption and deceit that leaves a bullet in a senator and Machete a wanted man. Machete sets out to clear his name and expose a deep conspiracy.
Filmmaking has no shortage of workmanlike strivers or even overwhelmed incompetents serving as directors, but in terms of talent versus application and output it’s clear that Robert Rodriguez is the laziest. His latest feature, the faux Mexsploitation flick Machete, is a dreadful effort, a loud and self-satisfied movie that is brazenly short-sighted and – the ultimate sin – lacking even in application; Rodriguez may well have gotten bored with Machete long before a paying audience will. You’d like to think so, because if this is his best work then any decline from here on would be truly painful.
To be clear, there are individual sequences in 1995’s Desperado, his second cinema release, that display more directorial flair and diligence than can be found across the entire length of Machete. Nor is it a case that Rodriguez is merely playing to historic form of his inspiration. While Machete is an arid expansion of the amusing, then fictional, trailer Rodriguez made for it as part of his Grindhouse project with Quentin Tarantino in 2007, it barely bothers to sustain the style of low rent seventies B-movies past the first few scenes: the saturated colours soon revert to bland digital camera brightness and the ratty edits smooth out.
All that remains is the occasional edit room detritus added digitally for throwback authenticity, and that’s typical of Rodriguez’s approach. He just grades the surface of an image and moves on. It’s the same with story. 'Machete" (Danny Trejo) is a taciturn, unyielding Mexican federal police officer who in the opening scene is run out of his own country after a drug lord (Steven Seagal) kills his wife and family. It’s hard to know what’s more outrageous in this beginning, Machete bloodily decapitating three cartel goons with one mighty swing or the rotund Seagal’s Spanish accent.
The picture is meant to be liberally drenched in blood, with a side order of naked women, and it dutifully delivers, but the gore quickly becomes repetitive and Rodriguez rarely has any fun with the outlandish scenarios. At one point Machete disembowels another goon and uses his intestines as a rope to climb down a building’s side and escape his pursuers, but generally it’s just thrust and hack, blast and sneer.
Rodriguez, who co-directed the feature with long-time editor and visual effects associate Ethan Maniquis, makes the carnage doleful where the storyline demands inflamed passion. Having fled to America as an illegal immigrant, Machete becomes a furtive day labourer who is recruited to serve as a patsy in the failed assassination of a Texan state senator, John McLoughlin (Robert De Niro), who traffics in rabid anti-Hispanic dogma. The Manchurian Candidate echo ends with Machete on the run, caught between an alliance of racist powerbrokers, Latin drug cartels and an anti-illegal immigrant militia lead by Von Jackson (Don Johnson, morphing into Joe Don Baker) on the one side, and an underground network aiding the illegal newcomers marshalled by taco van operator Luz (Avatar’s Michelle Rodriguez, no relation).
Machete is intended as a satire of American racism and piety, but the figures and their actions are so exaggerated and garish, and without sustained motivation, that any point that could be made is put aside for the cheap hit of sensation. Even then, however, the acceptable gambit of sensation, of using the screen to give us something that we respond to whether we want to or not, is soon put aside for lurid suggestion. Rodriguez shows the audience what he will do and allows them to bask in the idea, congratulating themselves on being hip enough to see the obvious, but the execution itself is never as good as the intention.
Lindsay Lohan turns up as the promiscuous daughter of the businessman (Jeff Fahey) who originally hired Machete, and Rodriguez liberally trades on her troubles to have her passed out in a drug den or seducing Machete into a threesome with her Republican country club mother. Later he finds a way to dress her in a nun’s habit while wielding an automatic rifle; it’s predictable to the point of noxiousness, and what’s more Lohan’s performance is either simpering or bland. It exploits her image, not any vestige of talent she may possess.
Lohan is an unfulfilled stunt, one of many, but the lead roles aside from the bull-like Trejo, with his compellingly genuine face, are equally problematic. De Niro wears the mechanical smirk that he uses to signify a comic performance, and while his over the top Texan accent brings a smile there’s not a whit of the venal pleasure his character should have. Machete’s low-budget predecessors at least boasted committed performances that often twisted base emotions, and Michelle Rodriguez gets that, but as an immigration agent torn between her duty and her conscience, Jessica Alba provides one of the most misguided, laughably bad performances you will ever see.
Tottering in high heels, playing the tough investigator, Alba has no grasp of film she’s in – she switches from hardened to soft as if a switch has been flicked, and her attempt at an inspirational speech should have drawn fruit, not the crowd’s acclaim. But given the choice of a miscast star versus an effective character actor, Rodriguez chooses the shortcut. And Alba’s character grows ever more pliant, the camera concentrating on her body as she become just another female form to be paraded in front of the lens. For a film nominally about combating racism, Machete has a serious problem with misogyny.
There is a hopelessly choreographed, positively cartoonish mass battle as the film’s culmination, but the further it goes on the less it resolves anything. De Niro’s character suddenly changes side, Lohan turns up as a nun and it’s not clear if she’s suddenly a peacemaker or killer, and Michelle Rodriguez goes into action in a bikini top, because that’s how all the great revolutionaries do it. Scores are settled, but the film just careens from cheap set-up to groan-worthy cliché. One of the closing codas even suggests that after everything that transpired, the anti-illegal immigrant militia continues to operate, which should come with a sickening thud but just sails through because they’re needed for a corny pay-off.
That’s typical of Machete. In too many vital decisions that matter the lesser, easier choice is made. The film’s failings are so numerous that it becomes interminable.