Let’s get this out of the way right now.
It’s not a call for amnesty.
It’s not advocacy of killing those opposed to (illegal) immigration.
Just stop it.
Before the first of the two features in 2007′s criminally unappreciated Grindhouse, what audience there was was treated to a faux trailer for a character whose first strokes were painted in Robert Rodriquez’s Desperado and fully realized in a supporting, and decidedly PG, role in all three of the director’s Spy Kids adventures. No longer a genial uncle, the man in the fake trailer was quite R-rated and definitely the wrong Mexican with whom to fuck. He was…
Conceived as a direct-to-DVD movie before a promotion to the silver screen, Machete opened this week amid the unending debate over Mexican immigration into the United States. Although the border is the backdrop and, in the end, it’s the wetbacks versus the rednecks, this is not a movie about politics or race. It’s, in the end, a fairly simple revenge/redemption story with the usual Rodriguez overlay of hot women and cartoonishly over-sized violence.
And a pretty good one.
Machete (Danny Trejo, finally a bride) begins the story as one of the few federales still interested in enforcing the law. This runs him afoul of not only the criminal element haunting the border, but his own corrupt superior, as well, who, in concert with drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal playing a Mexican, yes), ruins Machete’s life before his eyes and leaves him for dead in a burning house.
Always a mistake.
Three years later, we find Machete on the U.S. side of the border struggling for work as a day-laborer under the watchful eyes of ICE agent Sartana (Jessica Alba). Machete is approached by a mystery man (Jeff Fahey) who tasks him to assassinate a (really, really) staunch opponent of Mexican immigration, State Senantor McLaughlin (Robert De Niro, having fun). When the hit goes awry, Machete finds himself tangled up with his employer’s enforcers and The Network, a secret association of Mexican immigrants and allies lead by local taco vendor Luz (Michelle Rodriguez, also criminally unappreciated, but I digress). Soon, Machete hooks up with Sartana, who agrees to look the other way while he gathers evidence to both clear his name and get to the bottom of his ex-employer’s motivations and associates.
The best thing about Machete are the over-the-top action sequences, particularly the pre-credits sequence and Machete’s escape from a hospital following the botched assassination. The quick cuts and splatter really work here, and are fun and exciting in a way the violence and death in Pirahna 3-D completely missed the mark. At it’s worst (and it’s never that bad) the movie goes off on fairly needless tangents involving Fahey’s burnout daughter (Lidndsey Lohan, basically playing herself) and Rodriquez mascot Cheech Marin as Machete’s priest brother. There’s also sneering and villainy from Don Johnson as a self-appointed border vigilante and an uber hitman played by makeup wiz Tom Savini.
Trejo is good in the lead role. You knew he could handle the stunt work but, with a minimum of dialog, he also makes Machete both someone you like and someone you believe is smart enough to figure things out. Alba is predictably lightweight playing a federal agent. Sadly, Michelle Rodriquez takes a backseat to her in what ends up being an underwritten role.
When the inevitable showdown between Machete’s army and the bad guys happens, things get very slapdash and jumpy. It’s as though the sequence exploded and the shots had to be pieced back together from memory. A key villain is killed off-screen, another disappears entirely, and it’s difficult to tell who’s shoot/stabbing/goring whom. The lack of coherence may be an intentional homage to the Z-movie trash Machete emulates, but it left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied in the end. Still, I enjoyed this more than I did last month’s The Expendables, which I thought was 20 minutes of scattershot violence padded to fill 100 minutes.
Certainly not to be taken seriously, Machete is a worthy spin-off from Grindhouse (and, I guess, Spy Kids) that’s a better waste of two hours than several of the other wastes of two hours we’ve gotten this summer. See it if the mood strikes you.
* * 1/2
-JJJ (is on Twitter)