While it certainly isn't for a lack of effort, Machete co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis just can't maintain the grimy, hack-and-slash momentum that makes the opening scene of their bloody exploitation throwback a mini-masterpiece of cinematic brutality. At 105 minutes, Machete drags on just a bit too long, yet the spirit of exploitation is alive and well throughout, and even as multiplex malaise begins to set in, it's impossible to deny that this reckless little neo-grindhouse romp is incredibly entertaining in fits. It also gets big points for featuring the increasingly cuddly Robert De Niro in one of his edgiest roles of the last two decades.
When we first see Machete (Danny Trejo), the Mexican Federale and his partner are speeding down a dusty highway en route to save a young girl who's been kidnapped by notorious Mexican drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). By the time Machete realizes it's a trap, it's already too late, and after forcing the Federale to watch as his wife is executed, Torrez torches the house and leaves him for dead. Some time later, Machete has crossed the border into Texas and begun working as a day laborer when he befriends Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), the owner of a popular taco stand who has connections to a mysterious underground organization called The Network, and who has recently become the target of an investigation by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officer Sartana (Jessica Alba). The heat begins to turn up when the mysterious Booth (Jeff Fahey) offers Machete a briefcase full of cash to assassinate Senator McLaughlin (De Niro), a racist White House hopeful who likes to hunt illegals on the border with Lt. Stillman (Don Johnson) and his overzealous gang of trigger-happy minutemen. But just as Machete prepares to pull the trigger, he takes a bullet from Booth's henchman Sniper (Shea Whigham), and realizes he's been double-crossed. Now, it's time for some payback.
You've got to hand it to Rodriguez for making good on his promise to deliver a Machete feature after whetting our appetites with the gloriously badass "fake" trailer that opened Grindhouse back in 2007. In their sincere effort to give moviegoers the most bang for their buck, Rodriguez and Maniquis brew up the kind of deliriously violent action sequences that helped establish the former as one of the most promising and innovative young filmmakers of his generation. But while Rodriguez's eye for outrageous action is sharp as ever, as a screenwriter he tends to be overindulgent, and by the time the movie hits the 90-minute mark, Machete has already overstayed his welcome. It's not so much that the film becomes a victim of its own excess, but that the shortcomings of Rodriguez and cousin/co-screenwriter Álvaro Rodriguez as writers ultimately bog it down. Once the story begins to unfold, the Rodriguezes seem to have trouble finding the fat to trim, leaving the viewers to pick the gristle out of their teeth while they await the next big action scene. That misstep, coupled with a frequent tendency to drag out scenes for just a few beats too long, slows down the action in Machete just enough prevent the film from establishing a satisfying rhythm.
Thank heavens Machete is so unapologetically irresponsible, crass, offensive, and hilarious; otherwise we might really start to notice the boredom as it begins to set in.
Along with the aforementioned Expendables, Machete features one of the strongest B-movie casts of the year. Action fans who lamented the fact that Steven Seagal was notably absent from Sylvester Stallone's all-star action flick will relish the opportunity to see the ponytailed martial artist perish in what may be the silliest death scene since Paul Reubens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie, not the show!), Jeff Fahey exudes weaselly menace with his slicked-back businessman mullet, Johnson dons a pair of chintzy fake sideburns that Herschell Gordon Lewis would have sent back to the makeup artist, and Cheech Marin is a blast in his brief cameo as a shotgun-toting, reefer-smoking priest. The haggard Lindsay Lohan is already too chewed up to play a convincing drugged-out rich girl, sounding for all the world like her dialogue has been overdubbed by Tom Waits. And despite the fact that De Niro pulls out all the stops to make Senator McLaughlin the biggest scumbag south of the Mason-Dixon Line, he's still outshined by the swaggering, impossibly tough Trejo, who plays the titular living legend to grizzled perfection. Trejo might just have one of the best faces in contemporary film, and he's impossible to look away from as he wins a street fight without setting down his burrito, and decapitates three of Torrez's henchmen with one swift swing of the blade.
At the end of Machete, the producers promise that the blade-wielding ex-Federale will return in "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again." If those films ever make it to the multiplex, we may be forced to accept the fact that the grindhouse has finally gone mainstream. Much like the exploitation masters of yesteryear, Rodriguez and company take a hot-button issue (in this case immigration) and use it as the foundation for an anything-goes film that favors grisly thrills over serious reflection. For that reason, it's easy to forgive Machete its shortcomings, and chuckle quietly at the audacity of the images that playfully rub our noses in our own shortcomings as a society.