"If you're gonna hire Machete to kill the bad guy, you better make damn sure the bad guy isn't you!"
As uttered in the original fake trailer attached to Grindhouse in 2007, that line sums up the charm of Machete as both a fleeting concept and, now, a feature-length endeavor. Robert Rodriguez has expanded that two-minute dose of goofy Mexploitation thrills into a somewhat ungainly, but mostly fun 105 minutes.
Danny Trejo, second cousin to Rodriguez, returns as the former Federale-turned-freedom fighter, a super-stoic anti-hero with a knack for taking out the bad guys and lovin' the ladies. In the former group falls Robert De Niro as a Texas senator hellbent on keeping immigrants out of this great land of his, Jeff Fahey as his shady right-hand man, Don Johnson as a proud minuteman and Steven Seagal as the drug lord who cost Machete his family. Among the latter ranks are Michelle Rodriguez as a Che-like leader of the downtrodden, Jessica Alba as the ICE agent on her tail and Lindsay Lohan as Fahey's incest-inviting dope of a daughter. (And that's not even to mention the supporting appearances by Shea Whigham, Tom Savini and Cheech Marin.)
As you can see, things are a little more crowded this time around, and Rodriguez is as much a sucker for inventing icons as he's ever been. In fact, he gets so caught up in including gun-wielding babes donning eye patches and nun's habits, hot twin nurses, shotgun-shooting priests and henchmen inexplicably wearing wrestling masks that he almost forgets that Machete ought to be the star of his own show. When he's in the spotlight, Trejo milks his trademark gruff charm for all its worth, deadpanning about how "Machete don't text" and doing things with gardening tools and human intestines that they weren't necessarily designed for.
These over-the-top moments help liven things up amid all the politics and plot that one's left wishing that there were a few more of them, if not a few less minutes in between what's already there. (How this managed to bloat beyond ninety minutes, I'll never know.) Rodriguez is credited co-writer and co-director here, sharing respective responsibility with cousin Álvaro Rodríguez and cohort Ethan Maniquis in addition to cranking out a fittingly flavorful score with his band, Chingon.
Beyond making sure that every explosion has an adequately cheesy polish and luring all the right friends into town, though, his presence isn't a deeply felt one. Cheap even beyond its intentions -- safety cones meant to re-direct traffic can clearly be seen in shots, the trademark "grindhouse" scratches and dirt disappear once the title appears, and many shots are lifted directly from the fake trailer itself -- it's lacking in his Desperado-era flair. Hell, even Shorts looked like more of a movie than this does.
But hey, no one's asking for much and everyone's in on the joke: Marin as pot smoker, De Niro as taxi driver, Seagal as Mexican and so on... except for maybe Alba. Whereas Michelle Rodriguez owns her empowered persona, Alba aims for earnest sincerity and reinforces her status as primo eye candy above all else. Lohan, on the other hand, gets to lampoon her public image a bit (with the help of a body double), while Seagal proves to be the best sport in the bunch by following suit. De Niro delivers hokey campaign speeches with ease, Fahey sweats like nobody around, and as the resident redneck, Johnson is merely nibbling on his scenery in comparison to his colleagues.
Like I said: it's a little ungainly, a bit crowded, but pretty much what you'd expect for a real movie based on a fake trailer. In a summer that's been all about low expectations, Machete feels like the right kind of goofy high note on which to end the season.