Machete is one mean bastard. A former member of Mexico’s elite Federales, he’s handy with gun, with boot, with fist and forearm, and, of course, with the giant knife from which he’s taken his name. I might add that it seems that “Machete” is his name, as opposed to a nom de plume, for we see that his superiors, his family, his friends, hell even the FBI and INS (including their computer database), refer to him by the titular blade. Fortunately for the world, Machete is on the side of good, trying to bust drug dealers and murderous thugs who, for instance, shoot and kill pregnant Mexican women as they try to cross the border. One of these thugs is a Republican State Senator from Texas who’s trying to erect a wall to keep Hispanics from crossing over into the United States and… wait one second. Are we saying that Machete, Robert Rodriguez’ long-awaited Grindhouse follow-up, the one with the nude women, funky music, and buckets of gore is… a political film?
Well, God damn it all, indeed we are. And you know what? It works. This is not to say that Machete (now showing at the Bow Tie Cinemas) is any masterpiece–in fact, like all of Rodriguez’ pictures, this one falls just a bit short. But it is one hell of a ride, a two-fisted action film that’s flat-out fun, and, hell, provocative. It makes you think. Namely, it makes you think that Mexicans make America work, and God bless it all, they’re people, worthy of living their lives like any one else. Fuck with that, and, hey, you might just get your head chopped off by a man like Machete.
Machete began as one of the fake trailers in the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino production of Grindhouse, back in 2007. That movie, almost three hours of bloody fun, was a tremendous flop. But the original trailer for Machete, with its great tagline “They fucked with the wrong Mexican!” caught the public’s imagination, and demand grew for a feature-length version. Three years later, here we are. The challenge, then, is how to expand a less than three minute short into a ninety-minute film.
Rodriguez takes the bizarre tack by turning it into something politically charged. It is to his great credit that the inspiration for this was the wicked Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the dull remake.) After Machete’s family has been killed by the ruthless drug lord Torrez (an overweight Steven Seagal, sporting a terrible accent), Machete, a former Federales, ends up in Texas looking for work as a day laborer. One day, a steely-eyed man in a black Mercedes, Booth (Jeff Fahey–truly excellent) picks up our hero. “Fifty dollars a day for yard work,” a weary Machete tells Booth as they drive to the latter’s mansion. “A hundred for roofing. Hundred fifty for septic.” Booth turns and asks, “Have you ever killed anyone before?” Of course he has, but Booth doesn’t know this. The target is one Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro–believe it), and the price is $150,000.
McLaughlin is a right-wing lunatic, a guy whose reelection ads feature caricatures of Mexicans, and the promise to build an electric fence along the border to keep out the hordes. But he’s in trouble, his poll numbers dropping, and he needs help. The plan? Have Machete think he’s killing the Senator, while in fact he’s being set up. Booth’s aides wing the Senator and simultaneously kill Machete, and an illegal immigrant will take the blame. The infuriated public will reelect the Senator in a landslide.
As the ads said, they fucked with the wrong Mexican. Machete is shot, but not killed. He makes his escape to a hospital that is sympathetic to immigrants (part of a network run by a mysterious woman simply called “She”). Teaming up with Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), the woman in charge of the “network” (and the one who created the mysterious “She”), as well as INS Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba–oh, my Lord she is awful), Machete digs around trying to find the truth.
Turns out that the Senator, Booth and the drug kingpin Torrez want a wall erected along the border… not just to keep Mexicans out, but to reduce the supply of drugs pouring into Texas. The wall will help them control the amount of drugs coming in, and drive up the price, making all three more money. See, the right wing is actually in bed with Mexican drug lords.
Along the way, Machete fights with a band of white vigilantes run by Lt. Stillman (Don Johnson), screws Booth’s wife and daughter (the latter played by a very naked Lindsay Lohan), blows things up, chops things up, shoots, maims, stings a man with a weed whacker, and, at one point, pulls a man’s intestines out of his body and uses them to rappel down the side of a building.
Did I mention that Cheech Marin is on hand… and he’s literally crucified?
Machete moves at a fast clip, and the violence, and nudity, are in great abundance. The political dialogue is never didactic, except in Alba’s scenes, and why she’s in Rodriguez’ movies remains a mystery, since she drains the life out of any picture she’s in. I mean, God damn it, she’s terrible. Machete drags in spots, and could have had about twenty minutes hacked out of it. But the film’s often hilarious, intentionally thank God (which is great, since unintentional laughs go stale after just a few minutes), and especially in the scenes with Trejo and Cheech Marin, who plays Machete’s brother, a priest not immune to the ways of violence. “God forgives, I do not,” he says, just before blowing away one of the bad guys. The chemistry between Trejo and Marin is perfect. I wish Cheech Marin were in more pictures.
Machete, then, is in the tradition of the best blaxploitation films of the 70s, a potent cocktail of cheap thrills mixed with a shot of rage against the Man. De Niro, Seagal, Don Johnson, Lohan, and especially Trejo and Fahey all play their roles to a ‘t’, hamming it up, fun to watch. Like most grindhouse fare, this one’ll leave you feeling charged, maybe feeling a bit dirty, but also, perhaps, a bit angry about how our brothers and sisters from South of the Border are being treated here in America. From where I sit, that’s a good thing.