Director Robert Rodriguez began making films as a kid in his backyard, and it would seem that he has spent an entire career trying to get back to that. There isn’t a director working today who seems to have as much fun—and have the talent to back it up and make it worthwhile—as Rodriguez. Good for him for figuring out a means of making a living off making films his way. His latest, Machete, might best be described as Rodriguez finally and wholeheartedly transforming the loopy fun of his Spy Kids films into something for adult audiences. That he’s managed to do this in the most ridiculous and agreeably tasteless way imaginable is all the better.
While longtime Rodriguez collaborator and editor Ethan Maniquis is given a co-director credit for the film, Machete is still Rodriguez’s brainchild. The original idea for the film began gestating in 1995 during the filming of Desperado, where Rodriguez first met star Danny Trejo and wanted to create a vehicle for the actor he describes as a “Mexican Charles Bronson.” Then, 12 years later, a fake trailer for Machete ended up on the beginning of the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse and the positive response led to a full-blown feature.
Machete continues the tradition created by Rodriguez’s half of the double-feature Grindhouse, Planet Terror, by being an homage to ‘70s exploitation B cinema. However, Machete is never a parody of such films (this is where a lot of other films that attempt to do the same thing fail), and it’s not a movie riddled with in-jokes and obscure references. Rather, it acts more as an opportunity for the man to revel in absurdity and the inherent cheesiness that’s cropped up in all of Rodriguez’s films, but in a completely unapologetic manner.
The film is the one promised by the original fake trailer, with Danny Trejo as Machete, a supposed Mexican day laborer who is hired by a shady political aide (Jeff Fahey, Grindhouse) to knock off a racist senator (Robert De Niro), only to be double-crossed and left for dead. The only problem is that Machete is a former federale and a very difficult man to kill and he is soon on the warpath for revenge.
The film is incredibly violent and gory, but in a splatstick kind of manner, where the multiple acts of egregious bodily harm are for the sole purpose of black humor—never is the violence used in an uncomfortable or disgusting manner. A lot of it is about the way in which the violence occurs, since we’re talking about a hero who offs bad guys with everything from cooking utensils to a Weed Eater. Machete nevertheless revels in its own preposterousness and bad taste. From the moment we find out where a nude hostage is hiding her cell phone at the beginning of the film—or after seeing Steven Seagal as a Mexican druglord—we know what kind of movie we’re in for, and it’s all combined with the usual Rodriguez wit and imagination.
While this is probably Rodriguez’s most ludicrous film, it’s also his most topical. The entire movie is about Mexican immigration into the U.S., and it’s depicted in the most blatant way possible. There’s nothing subversive about what Rodriguez is saying, with racist rednecks patrolling the border and politicians using immigration as a political tool.
Maybe the most surprising thing about the film is how good the performances are. Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez have never been so palatable, while a small role by Don Johnson is almost enough to make you forget Nash Bridges ever existed. Even Steven Seagal is surprisingly fun on occasion. And that’s what Machete is really about: a movie where everyone involved is honestly enjoying themselves. Of course, the film’s brand of preposterousness won’t be to everyone’s liking. Still, it’s a hard movie not to enjoy—as long as you’re on its same gory wavelength. Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity.