On paper, and even in the promotional trailers, the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration known as Grindhouse sounded like a great idea. But the final product, the double feature of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof, left much to be desired. Infinitely more entertaining than either of the two feature films were the fake trailers that screened before each movie, with the trailer for Rodriguez’s own non-existent Machete rising head and shoulders above everything else. And so it came as little surprise when it was announced that Machete would become a real film. But after the potential problem with turning an incredibly entering Mexploitation short that clocks in at less than three minutes into a feature is the other ninety-or-more minutes needed to pad the whole thing out.
Having added more than one hundred minutes to a concept that originally got the point across in just over one hundred-twenty seconds, Machete is pretty much what you would expect it to be, provided your expectations remain comfortably low. And that’s not to say this is a bad movie, or even a disappointing one, but it is a film that tries too hard to be more than it was ever meant to be.
The supremely badass Danny Trejo steps up to leading man status as Machete, a Mexican federale betrayed by corrupt cops and left for dead after witnessing his own wife brutally murdered by sadistic drug lord Torrez (a rather portly Steven Seagal). Years later, Machete is living illegally in Texas, surviving as a day laborer who will take any sort of job to make ends meet. He is hired by Booth (Jeff Fahey), but instead of being asked to do yard work of clean septic tanks, Machete is given $150,000 to assassinate the racist Senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro). Of course, it is all a set-up meant to frame Machete, who is injured in the process, and must now fight to clear his name and get revenge. Along the way he crosses paths with Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) a taco vendor who is also the shadowy leader of an underground resistance movement of illegal immigrants, and Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba), a federal agent torn by her sense of duty to her job and her sense of justice to her people. Meanwhile, racist vigilante Von Jackson (Don Johnson) is leading his private little war against immigrants—a cause that is supported by McLaughlin. And of course, the sadistic Torrez factors into all of this as well, along with Machete’s brother, the killer-turned-priest Padre Cortez (Cheech Marin), and Booth’s drug-addled, nympho daughter (Lindsay Lohan).
In its original fake trailer version, Machete ran at just over two and a half minutes long, and managed to pack in enough violence, nudity and pure exploitation cinema madness to be a work of pure genius. The problem with the feature version of the film is not that it takes a premise that is in and of itself ridiculous to begin with, and then expands on its ridiculousness. No, the problem with Machete is that it tries too hard to put in story where there is no need for story, and pads the premise out with characters that aren’t interesting enough to warrant the time they are given. If all Machete did as a film was deliver on the senseless violence and gratuitous sex that it initially promised, then it may well have been one of the best films of the year. But the script, which is poorly written more often than not, throws in too much “story” in the misguided notion that films like this need to be about something other than blowing things up and killing people. This is especially true with pretty much every scene with Jessica Alba, in which the movie grinds to a halt out of some misplaced notion that it is wrong for a film to do anything other than have Danny Trejo kill and screw his way through a feature.
Machete is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad film. But it is a flawed movie that suffers from a few too many poorly written scenes and some seriously bad performances (Alba, Seagal and Rodriguez about half the time she’s on film) to ever be a cinematically transcendental work of exploitative art. At the same time, when the film does work—as in any scene where Trejo is kicking ass, or every frame with Cheech Marin—Macheteis fun for what it is. The over-the-top violence plays out like a dream come true for fans of gore-splattered mayhem, especially the hospital scene in which Machete uses the intestines of one of the bad guys as a piece of rope that he uses to make a hasty escape out a window.
If you are a fan of ridiculous action films, and don’t mind a movie that runs a bit too long at times while still managing to deliver the goods more often than not, then Machete will keep you entertained. Trejo carries the film, and though I had problems with some aspects of the movie, I would gladly watch him reprise this role in the further adventures of Machete.