I’m five minutes into “Machete,” Robert Rodriguez’s latest slice of shamelessly excessive Mexploitation. I’ve seen one car wreck, two pointblank gunshots to heads, two tits, one ass, and a flamethrower inferno. And that doesn’t include the numerous eyes, heads, and limbs cleanly hacked to pieces. Most hideous of all is the dubious cinematic resurrection of Steven Segal as a slick, reptilian drug-lord lizard with the worst carcinoma-magnet suntan this side of George Hamilton.
Segal isn’t the only leathery “Machete” mug. In fact, the granddaddy of scowling facial rawhide, Danny Trejo, boasts the supremely weathered flesh of a roadside animal carcass roasting in the Texas sun. His hardened, black marble eyes and permanent scowl only add to a serious “scary motherfucker” vibe. Forget Leatherface. Trejo’s the real deal.
Robert Rodriguez is the Mexican Dr. Frankenstein of film, and “Machete,” a South-of-the-border variation on “Mad Max” with exaggerated, “Mexploitation” politics, is his monster creation. Danny Trejo, one-time felon and the go-to guy for playing seedy villain character roles (“Heat,”“Con Air”), was born to play the lead role.
Machete is a one-time Federale whose family, career, and reputation have been snuffed out by Segal’s soul-less dope baron. He’s down and out, stumbling through the streets of Texas as a lowly day laborer and sometimes back-alley fist-fighter, brawling for bucks. Machete’s wasted life takes a turn even further south when limo-driving Jeff Fahey pulls up to our hard-up hero and makes an offer that can’t be refused.
Fahey plays Booth, a ponytailed schemer whose expensive suits fail to hide the truly unrepentant scumbag cloaked beneath. After balking at Booth’s insistence that he gun down right wing, illegal immigrant foe Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro), Machete is told that he’ll disappear at the hands of Powerful People in Powerful Places if he doesn’t accept this dirty job.
Machete reluctantly takes on the assassination assignment, brandishing a high-powered rifle that Booth insists will “blow the pecker off a mosquito.” Before he can get a shot in, however, someone else’s bullet pierces McLaughlin’s leg. Machete is caught fleeing the scene, and framed for the shooting. As the Hispanic-hating politician is hauled off for hospitalization on a gurney, the on-the-lam Machete becomes a reluctant poster child for McLaughlin’s policy, “No amnesty for parasites.”
Predictably, all is not what it seems. There’s a lowdown conspiracy brewing between drug runners, corrupt politics, and border control.
With damaged body wilting beneath him and now-notorious mug plastered across the boob tube, Machete is reinvigorated by an unlikely team of allies. An underground doctor saves Machete from a skull-piercing bullet wound, (explaining, ”The bullet rebounded off another one previously lodged in your brain”). Michelle Rodriguez runs a taco stand….and possibly an underground group of revolutionaries. Jessica Alba plays an idealistic cop soured by the deep currents of corruption poisoning her profession, and Linday Lohan plays, well, a spoiled rich kid reeling from rehab. No strech there.
Meanwhile, Cheech Marin appears as Machete’s brother, a not-so-pious padre espousing scripture, shotgun… and smokes. In one of the film’s many wicked in-jokes, Marin opens a box of stogies. “Cuban?” he asks Machete. “Mexican,” Trejo retorts, before being handed a funny cigarette of the kind that made Marin famous during his “Cheech and Chong” heyday.
It’s common knowledge that Rodriguez is a take-no-shit renegade, who financed first film “El Mariachi” by loaning his body to science at an experimental research hospital. I don’t know which chemical cocktails were flushed through his system – or their subsequent impact – but “Machete” suggests complete and utter decimation of cognitive inhibition. Pulling the best aspects of his “Grindhouse” aesthetic – an intentionally jaundiced, yellow, scratched-up look to the film – with a churning, hypnotic heavy metal soundscape (courtesy his own band, Chingon), Rodriguez creates gonzoid artistry from retro trash. And he’s not afraid to throw all manner of shit on the wall to see what sticks – though most would prefer to splatter, drip, and ooze from crimson walls.
As for a much ballyhooed, “pro-illegal-immigration” stance that “Machete” appears to champion, the plot is so completely preposterous, painted in such broad strokes, it’s hard to swallow the film as serious propaganda. The prejudiced villains are satanically vile opportunists and murderers. The Hispanic freedom seekers are angelic saints. Certainly, politically sensitive viewers adamantly opposed to Rodriguez’s stacked deck might take issue with “Machete” and what seems, on the surface, a one-sided agenda. But the film feels more like an exaggerated cartoon, a “Mexploitation” parody with tongue firmly in cheek.
As Machete raps up, my inner geek is still reeling, like a grinning kid drowning in a chocolate-filled swimming pool. My notes read as follows: Human intestine used as escape rope. Bone-cutting surgical instrument duct-taped to cord for slashing enemy assailants. “Spy Kids” boy suddenly all grown up, appearing as a wiley chop shop operator. Machine gun-toting bimbo paramedics. The resurrected career of Don Johnson. Jessica Alba shower scene.
Is “Machete” a cut above, or does it merely cut the cheese? If you adore Jennifer Aniston, or abhor violence of the most relentless hybrid, chances are you will find the character – and his film – a grueling endurance test. However, if you’re pissed off and insulted by the endless assembly line of bland, Barbie-inhabiting gunk being pumped through today’s multiplex poop-chute… Machete’s your man. Likely, you’ll share his insulted rage at a system gone sour. Frankly, I’m in the latter camp.