When first announced, Machete, the full-length adaptation of the fake trailer Robert Rodriguez placed before his Grindhouse entry, it seemed but the latest in a slew of projects the director proposed whilst wearing his Bad Idea Jeans. Everyone wanted him to finally get down to Sin City 2, the sequel to what is to date Rodriguez's sole work to be completely successful from start to finish, and instead he seemingly went out of his way to bore his fanbase with projects no one cared about.
Now don't we all look foolish?
Somehow, Machete is by far the best film Rodriguez has made since Sin City, and even a sizable improvement over the Grindhouse contribution that helped spark this movie. Where Planet Terror contented itself to slop red corn syrup by the bucket, Machete takes advantage of the hilariously stilted politics of old exploitation movies to get across a pointed attack at current fearmongering regarding illegal immigration without having to bother with anything so inconvenient as subtlety. Rodriguez wants us to know that the true enemies are within, and they have access to a lot more capital and resources than a day laborer just looking to make a new life for himself. Naturally, the director proves this point with a machete-wielding ex-Federale who destroys half of Texas to enlighten it.
Danny Trejo always makes an impression, with his pockmarked face opening up crevasses for untold pain to pool and insinuate itself onto an audience. He's a fearsome looking man, yet one feels instant sympathy for him, a sympathy that he can then subvert and pervert until he projects an intimidating aura that overpowers even his striking appearance. When we first meet him, he's still a cop in Mexico fighting the drug cartels (led by Torrez, inexplicably played by Steven Seagal, who is so hammy that he seems to have put on weight from his own overacting). Despite being a lawman, he's already a legend and nothing short of ruthless when confronted by criminals, but when a rescue goes awry, Machete watches Torrez kill his wife and say that he did the same to the Federale's daughter before leaving the heartbroken man to die in a burning building.
Of course, the elements of nature are no match for Trejo's leather hide, and he makes his way to America, where he works quietly as a day laborer until being picked up by a shady businessman (Jeff Fahey) and receiving a large sum of money to assassinate State Sen. John McLaughlin, who is tragically not a jazz guitarist but an open racist who promotes a zero tolerance policy on illegals. Machete doesn't seem too thrilled, but he knows that, despite the payment, he has no choice in the matter, and he also does not seem all that surprised when he learns that the assignment is a setup that frames Machete in order to sway public support for harsh immigration law.
Plot twists continue to pile up, but Rodriguez clearly intends this 15-minute chunk of setup to represent everything you really need to know about the story. All that comes later is just icing on the expository cake, designed mainly to show off a packed cast of mainly Latino actors, as well as a few surprise heavy-hitters. Michelle Rodriguez plays Shé, a revolutionary who has organized a network of immigrants and those sympathetic to the cause in preparation for the inevitable race war. By day, she runs a taco truck, constantly visited by an immigration control officer, played by Jessica Alba, who suspects "Luz" of being Shé. Jeff Fahey reprises his role from the trailer as the businessman and election manager who orchestrates the failed assassination to ensure the senator's reelection and the building of a border fence, and Robert De Niro, of all people, plays the senator. Even crazier, it's probably the most committed he's been to a role in years, taking to the affected twang of the rich Ivy Leaguer posing as a good ol' boy (sound familiar?) with a relish for character acting that's been so absent from his contemporary work. Most interesting among the casting choices is the deliberately unmarketed appearance by Lindsay Lohan. She plays a young woman with a spiraling drug problem and a penchant for exposing herself on the Internet, thus proving that Lindsay Lohan is more dedicated a method actor than Daniel Day-Lewis.
Everyone knows exactly what this movie is, and they're decent enough to still pretend to take it seriously without lazily winking at the audience. Only a gag involving guards letting Machete past them because he claims to be a gardener comes off as an openly acknowledged moment of metafiction. The rest is just glorious madness, with such audacious bits as a cleverly hid cell phone on a nude woman to a seemingly pointless bit of dialogue about the length of the human intestine shortly before Machete improvises a rope to rappel down a hospital building. The violence is broken up by stilted speeches about tolerance and political strife, delivered almost to the camera in tried and true exploitation fashion. Still, the old exploitation movies were so open about their politics because they came out in times of uncertainty, and with the Tea Party twisting the Republican party even more into an entity that worships the rich and stokes the fires of xenophobia and racism, maybe the sight of a senator shooting illegals and burning DVDs of it for his biggest corporate donors does not seem so absurd after all.
But let's get real. The draw of Machete is the action, cartoony yet well choreographed, from gritty close combat to blood-splattering machine gun assaults. How can you hold back raucous laughter when Machete leads a convoy of low-riders, all of which bounce, to battle against a Minutemen-like group of ultra-racists who patrol the border shooting anyone who so much as has a nice tan? And who doesn't admire the goofy wit of a director who would stage a death involving impalement with a meat thermometer followed by an explosion that leaves the poor man charred as the mercury in the thermometer rockets upward?
Rodriguez has always aimed for the middle ground between intelligence and lowbrow, but he usually hits the lower mark. Machete, like Sin City and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, finds just the right balance, paced well and endearingly quirky while still amounting to little more than a series of explosions, hacked-off limbs and popping squibs. Rodriguez will never approach the level of his friend Tarantino as a silly-serious filmmaker, but films like Machete remind me why I still look forward to his new movies every now and then. It does not break the fourth wall as often as the last neo-exploitation movie, Black Dynamite, and because of that it works better as an actual film, even if it's just as absurd as Michael Jai White's vehicle. The silliness only makes the gore go down more smoothly, and Machete surely ranks as one of the bigger surprises of the weak mainstream offerings of the year.