I owed it to Robert Rodriguez to give his new film a chance, since Machete is the nearest thing we may ever see to a sequel to Grindhouse, one of my favorite productions of the past decade. While I didn't think that Quentin Tarantino held up his end with the too-gabby Death Proof, Rodriguez's Planet Terror was a masterpiece of genre pastiche, its distressed look (recreated in the new film's prologue) as much a triumph of style as the more vaunted Sin City. Machete, of course, was promised as a coming attraction during Grindhouse, but there was no more reason to expect it to actually open than there was to expect Don't! or Werewolf Women of the SS -- though Thanksgiving may yet see life. The fact that Rodriguez went on to make it did not guarantee that it'd be as good as Planet Terror. Rodriguez has a profoundly mixed record in my book. The aforementioned Sin City, for instance, was one of the most misguided movies of the millennium so far. I paid my matinee money this afternoon knowing that I had rolled the dice.
Fortunately, Machete is a triumph in its category, a riot of outrageousness and provocation with its heart in the right place. Yes, it does have a heart, and it bleeds. Don't watch this film if you intend on taking its message seriously or disagree with it in advance, because Rodriguez's sympathies are entirely with illegal immigrants as the downtrodden proletariat of our time. They are persecuted by a vast conspiracy of racist vigilantes, cynical politicians, and Mexican drug lords, not to mention Jessica Alba's well-meaning but naive ICE agent, but defended by The Network run by the not-so-mysterious "She" and later by Machete (Danny Trejo), himself an illegal driven from Mexico by the head drug lord, the monster who murdered his wife and may have done worse with his daughter. When I say monster I mean it: the drug lord is played by Steven Seagal, the one man of his kind allegedly not invited to be in The Expendables. More on him later, but his co-villains include Robert De Niro as an ersatz Texan politician, Jeff Fahey as his fixer and Don Johnson as a more-murderous version of the border Minuteman. Rodriguez's pop-paranoid premise is that all of these evils are in cahoots, all poised to benefit from the economic pressures to be imposed by stricter restrictions on the immigration that gives Texas a cheap labor supply. However that strikes you as political analysis, it provides our hero with plenty of enemies to fight.
The film must conform to the trailer by putting Machete to work for Fahey as a dupe assassin who must go on the run to clear his name and destroy the conspiracy of oppressors. He must have the help of Cheech Marin as the federale turned priest who will tell an enemy, "God has mercy; I don't." He must somehow fly through the air on a motorcycle rigged with machine guns, and he must ultimately rally a crowd of machete-wielding followers to prove that the enemy has fucked with the wrong Mexican. But Rodriguez has left himself lots of room to embellish, until toward the end he seemed to run out of room, or time. The film is full of eccentric characters and running gags as well as spectacular and gruesome stunts. It's the sort of film that convinces you, once a doctor talks about the length of the large intestine, that Machete is destined to use one (not his own, of course) as an escape tool. The violence is pitched at sight-gag level; you're supposed to laugh or simply admire the director's inventiveness. If you're appalled or disgusted you probably shouldn't have gone to the show. Machete's rightful audience is the people who experience a mild epiphany upon seeing Alba square off with a luchador-masked assassin armed only with red high-heeled shoes, or upon seeing a vengeful Lindsay Lohan in a nun's habit spraying a crowd with machine-gun fire, or a different though related sensation after Machete is momentarily defeated by a naked woman who removes her cellphone from a naughty hiding place.
Like many a comedy, Machete is a hit-or-miss exercise in constant invention. Some things didn't work for me. I could never tell whether the elderly hero's success with women (Machete is Trejo's own age: 66!) was a swaggering assertion of Mexican machismo or a jokey attempt to turn Trejo into a Hispanic Dolemite. The movie's climax is a mess, as Rodriguez clumsily arranges for all the major characters (and many minor ones) to converge on one location for an over-extended battle scene. His need to keep track of so many people and plotlines bogs the battle down so that it becomes less than the sum of its moments. But I'd rather see a director of this sort of film err on the side of excess, even if that means he drops some of the balls he's juggling, than have not enough going on at the climax.
Excess is the point of Machete, but there are also occasional grace notes. For all that Machete is built up as a sex machine, he can also be a gentleman, refusing to take advantage of a drunken Alba even when she invites him to lay with her. He can also be reticent with enemies, as proven in his several encounters with Fahey's likably dumb bodyguards. They don't really want to risk their lives against Machete, and he doesn't really need to kill them. He can taunt them with a weedwhacker or trap one's neck between the blades of hedge clippers, but he doesn't spoil the joke of their cowardice with supergratuitous killing. Along with Rodriguez's social consciousness, which is straight out of 1930s Warner Bros. (while Machete's final answer when asked where he's going -- "Everywhere," -- struck me as straight out of Tom Joad), these bits mark Machete as the bloodbath with a heart. The film might be inflammatory if played straighter, especially in its portrayal of an illegal army ready to wage war on border vigilantes, but Rodriguez may hope that if he directs a race war as farce the first time out, it won't have to be repeated as tragedy.
Danny Trejo makes the most of a role tailored personally for him. Machete might be a Dolemite in the sack, but he's also a more conventionally stoic and laconic hero whose sense of justice is only heightened by his agenda of vengeance. None of the villains are all they can be, since Rodriguez seems to lose track occasionally of which one's the big bad, but all are entertaining. Fairness requires me to give Steven Seagal credit for being a good sport here. His part requires little more than his own natural thuggishness, but his apparent enjoyment of the job makes him seem livelier than he's been in his own recent straight-to-DVD star vehicles. I suspect that he made some stipulation regarding the manner of his demise, but the result is a gloriously silly face-saving final speech that's hard to resent. Lindsay Lohan's presence as Fahey's druggy, slutty daughter sometimes seems like an afterthought, but the incest triangle Rodriguez concocts for her (Dad lusts after her, but she seems set to shoot a sex tape with Mom!) shows his afterthoughts to be those of an exploitation genius.
The finale promises a trilogy, the current film to be followed by Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again. Accordingly, Machete leaves a few loose ends. Our hero presumably has a score to settle with Tom Savini, while a young border vigilante who survives the final battle has learned not to puke at the sight of death and may be a menace for the future. In any event, there's lots of injustice in the world, and a lot of unjust laws made by unjust men. Since we can't have the man himself cutting through all the red tape, we may as well have more Machete movies. Here's hoping.
For historical purposes, here's the original Grindhouse trailer for Machete from 2007, as preserved on YouTube by TauHeel05.