Reviewed by Heather Wixson
Starring Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Lindsey Lohan
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis
In 2007 director Robert Rodriguez gave fans a glimpse of the gritty, over-the-top world of Machete (Trejo), an ex-Mexican Federale who gets caught up in a war with both sides of the law, with a fake trailer named after Trejo’s character that played during the Grindhouse double feature that Rodriguez released with fellow B-movie aficionado Quentin Tarantino.
Now, three years later, Rodriguez and company are back to give fans what they’ve been waiting for: the balls out, exploitation bliss of a full-length feature version of Machete that delivers sick action sequences along with oodles of sex and mayhem with a body count that would make Sylvester Stallone and his Expendables jealous.
As Machete begins, we meet Trejo’s character, who is battling to save a young woman being held by Mexican drug kingpin Torrez (Seagal). When the mission goes south, Torrez leaves the beaten Machete for dead after killing his family, not counting on the anti-hero surviving the brutal showdown. A mere shadow of the killer he once was, Machete now quietly lives in Texas as a day laborer trying to put his past behind him.
However, that all changes when Machete meets a man named Booth (Fahey), who hires him to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (De Niro) while giving a speech during one of his anti-immigration rallies. Machete, who just wants McLaughlin to stop spreading his narrow-minded political views, shows up to maim the senator, but he soon realizes that he’s actually caught in the middle of a deeper conspiracy as he ends up the true target of the assassination attempt by one of Booth’s henchmen and ultimately becomes the fall guy of McLaughlin’s anti-immigration campaign.
Accepting that he’s the only one who sees the reality of how flawed both sides of the immigration war is, Machete returns to his deadly roots to fight back against those pulling the immigration strings in both the US and Mexico, leading him back to Torrez, which allows the deadly assassin the perfect opportunity to exact revenge for everything the evil drug lord cost him and find redemption for the sins of his past.
It all sounds like something out of a Bourne movie, doesn’t it? Yes, but what takes Machete into a whole different stratosphere of action and makes all of that heavy subject matter feel like a carnival ride made up of the most ridiculous action sequences ever (including our hero wall-scaling his way out of a hospital via human intestines) is Rodriguez’s respect for the exploitation cinematic movement by incorporating and exploring these real-life political issues within the context of one of the most gratuitous action films ever made.
Just because Machete is one badass killing machine, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have time to sweep the ladies off their feet either. Some of the women he shows his more tender side with include a kind-hearted taco truck worker named Luz (M. Rodriguez), conflicted I.C.E. Agent Sartana (Alba), and even Booth’s troublesome daughter, April (Lohan, brilliantly playing a caricature of herself). Machete is as deadly in the bedroom as he is wielding sharp objects at the bad guys, and the one reason that the film never ventures into feeling too much like satire rests squarely on Trejo’s very able shoulders.
A man who has built his career on creating compelling side characters, Trejo now establishes himself as a leading man with Machete. The deadly character is a man of few words, and we like it that way. Part of what has always made us appreciate Trejo’s work as an actor is that so much of what he puts into his characters comes from his eyes, and Rodriguez embraces that rather than weighing Trejo’s character down with lofty dialogue. Do I see more of Trejo as a leading man outside of the genre? Not really, but what Machete does prove is that when given the right project, Trejo can hold his own alongside heavyweights like De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Alba, and Fahey.
What makes Machete so much fun to watch for audiences is how the eclectic cast of characters Rodriguez has assembled comes together within the story that sparks with dark humor and intelligence at every turn. Most people would accuse the director of stunt casting with this movie, but everyone’s performances truly fit their characters.
De Niro, who has established himself as a cinematic icon based on his more serious performances in movies like The Godfather 2, Goodfellas, and Casino, seems to be reinvigorated as a performer in Machete as his Senator McLaughlin prattles on about immigration with a twisted twinkle in his eye. Seagal is surprisingly good as well, and Don Johnson’s turn as the deadly border vigilante Von hearkens back to the day when the world rediscovered John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.
While the cast is primarily composed of testosterone, writer Rodriguez also allows his femme fatales the opportunity to shine on the big screen. This film in particular allowed me to finally warm up to Michelle Rodriguez as more than an actress who only knows how to be angry and see Alba as more than a pretty face. Rodriguez as a storyteller knows how to find the right balance of sexy and strong women without making them too stereotypical.
A compelling cast of characters. An intelligent script amidst some of the most insane action sequences ever put to film. Those are only two thirds of what makes Machete a brutal feast for the senses. The final part of the equation is director Rodriguez himself. A man who clearly established himself as a new voice of a darker sub-genre of action filmmaking with 1995’s Desperado, Rodriguez is one of the few remaining directors who can create a movie with heart while remaining true to his gritty roots. It’s a cinematic movement he found himself at the forefront of with Desperado, explored further in both From Dusk Till Dawn and Sin City, and has finally perfected with his latest exploration of bigger-than-life heroes in Machete.
Trejo’s Machete is more than just a legendary warrior or a deadly instrument of pain; he’s the icon of a gritty new movement in action films. Forget the previously mentioned Expendables. Forget A-Team. Forget Iron Man 2. Machete is THE action movie of 2010.
4 1/2 out of 5
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