Danny Trejo has been in a lot of movies, but you don’t always get a good look at his face. He usually pops up only briefly in tough-guy bit parts. But in Machete he’s the star, and man does this guy have one gnarled, weather-beaten mug. It’s as if he had a staring contest with the sun – and won.
Trejo plays the title character, a Mexican federal agent notorious for his preference for knives. In the opening sequence, he takes out an entire house of drug runners with his blade. How tough is Machete? Later in the movie, an x-ray reveals that a bullet to his head hasn’t wounded him because it was stopped by another bullet that was already lodged there. I bet Machete could take on the entire cast of The Expendables and win.
Machete is a by-product of 2007’s Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double-feature tribute to the exploitation films of the 1970s and ’80s. Of the handful of joke trailers that served as the movie’s intermission, Machete proved to be the most popular, so Rodriguez and protege Ethan Maniquis teamed up to direct this actual movie version. They’ve given us Mexploitation’s Shaft.
If you witnessed the guilty-pleasure lunacy of Grindhouse, then you know what to expect. Machete is copiously violent, yet unlike the recent, hateful Piranha 3D, it’s violent in a light and witty way (especially Machete’s lethal use of a meat thermometer).
The violence is even woven into the movie’s politics. The bulk of the film takes place in Texas, where Machete has fled after a Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal) has murdered his family and put a price on his head. Now an illegal immigrant, Machete soon finds himself in trouble with another kingpin (Jeff Fahey from “Lost). Forced to defend himself, he poses as a gardener at one point and uses a weed whacker as a weapon.
Machete‘s social commentary is as blatant as its bloodshed. That kingpin is connected to a U.S. Senator (Robert De Niro) who is campaigning on a deportation platform (when not making speeches, he cruises the desert for sport shooting Mexicans who are trying to cross the border). When Machete finds himself in the senator’s sights, an underground network of illegal immigrants comes to his rescue. True to exploitation form, their leader is Michelle Rodriguez (another “Lost” vet), sporting a machine gun, a leather bra and an eye patch.
There is more ridiculousness: Jessica Alba in the shower as an American immigration agent; Lindsay Lohan failing at self-parody as a druggy tart; an escape sequence in which Machete makes ingenious use of a victim’s intestines. It’s mostly in bad taste, but all in good fun. And thanks to Arizona’s recent anti-immigrant law as much as anything Rodriguez and Maniquis have done, Machete is also ingenious political satire. It’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Canción.