An aggressively overstated mashup of testosterone-fueled melodrama, comically exaggerated violence and babe-o-licious action femmes, “Machete” marks yet another attempt by multihyphenate Robert Rodriguez to simultaneously revive and burlesque the excesses of ’70s exploitation pics. Heralded three years ago with a fake trailer in “Grindhouse,” then developed into a standalone feature, this slam-bang B-movie pastiche is wildly uneven as it doggedly strives (sometimes with obvious strain) to sustain a free-wheeling, anything-goes air of exuberant junkiness. Still, the pic could score respectable B.O. by appealing to genre fans and Hispanic ticketbuyers.
Much in the manner of the vintage drive-in fare that inspired it, “Machete” has an anti-establishment, borderline-revolutionary political subtext. The larger-than-life villains include Von (Don Johnson), a sadistic militia commander who shoots to kill while patrolling the Tex-Mex border for illegal immigrants, and Sen. McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), a rabidly right-wing Texas state legislator who warns voters against an impending Mexican invasion, while periodically joining Von for some human target practice.
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When armed Mexicans (many of them driving low-riders and brandishing gardening tools) ultimately rise up against these and other oppressors during the pic’s rock-’em, sock-’em climax, it’s clear the audience is expected to roar its approval — a reaction that almost certainly will happen in many theaters, much to the chagrin of those on the other side of the immigration debate.
The pic’s hero is Machete (Danny Trejo), a former Mexican Federale who lives up to his name by displaying his death-dealing prowess with an impressive variety of blades. Pic’s prologue shows how Machete witnessed the murder of his wife and barely escaped his own demise, while tangling with Torrez, a notorious Mexican drug lord played by the conspicuously Anglo action star Steven Seagal (with an accent that comes, goes and comes back again).
Three years later, Machete, now living off the grid in Austin, is the right man in the wrong place at the right time when Texas businessman Booth (Jeff Fahey) needs a fall guy for his plot to boost McLaughlin’s re-election chances with a staged assassination attempt.
From the start, as Machete bloodily slices and dices his way through a thicket of thugs, then attempts to rescue a beautiful, naked hostage, Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis (who has long collaborated with Rodriguez in the editing room) try to strike a tricky balance of lip-smacking luridness and savage slapstick. While their imagination occasionally flags, their energy is well-nigh boundless.
Rodriguez and Maniquis gleefully go over the top in many sequences, with jokey displays of seriocomic carnage (at one point, Machete escapes from a shootout by using a bad guy’s intestines as a rappelling rope) and lightly clad beauties. Co-stars Jessica Alba (as a feisty ICE agent who allies herself with Machete) and Lindsay Lohan (boldly cast as a drug-addled, oversexed nymphet) provide a fair share of the latter, while Michelle Rodriguez (leader of an underground movement to protect undocumented Mexicans) generously contributes to a running gag about Machete’s irresistible appeal to every cutie he encounters.
Vet character actor Trejo, wielding a baleful glare that could demolish reinforced concrete, effectively plays it straight, even while brusquely joshing with co-star Cheech Marin (as Machete’s brother, a none-too-sanctimonious priest). De Niro, too, is unexpectedly understated, cleverly underscoring the elemental truths beneath his one-dimensional character. His Sen. McLaughlin may be a live-action political cartoon, but some of his more inflammatory statements don’t sound much worse than the rhetoric of real-life politicos.
In marked contrast to “Grindhouse,” which seemed a tad too slick and polished to truly evoke the flavor of seedy ’70s exploitation fare, “Machete” has the appropriate look and feel of a scrappy, penny-pinched indie aimed at drive-ins and inner-city theaters.
During the final credits, we’re promised at least two sequels. Don’t be surprised, however, if they turn out to be direct-to-video productions rather than theatrical releases. (There is precedent for that, as Rodriguez’s 1996 “From Dusk Till Dawn,” another B-movie homage generated two DTV sequels.)