Review: Machete



"Finally, the movie that Eat Pray Love should have been."
-- Slackerwood contributor Don Clinchy, immediately after watching Machete

I feel I can't really do Machete justice without channeling Joe Bob Briggs, the drive-in movie of Grapevine, Texas, and giving you a count on decapitations, bare breasts, nine kinds of fu, and other grisly types of fighting, wounding, and death. And tattoos. But Joe Bob, I am not.

I also wish I'd seen Machete in a drive-in theater, but we don’t really have those in Texas anymore -- not the old-fashioned kind, anyway, with the crappy speakers that hook onto your cars and the scary faraway bathrooms and all that. Since drive-ins are nearly extinct, Robert Rodriguez's latest flick will flourish with a big, receptive, rowdy audience for full enjoyment. Don’t wait for DVD. You want the kind of crowd you get at an Alamo Weird Wednesday, who can respect the movie while at the same time cheering and applauding for the best lines and the most creative kills.

However, while Machete was born to be a midnight movie, the movie is happily free of too much self-awareness of this fact, and avoids an excess of camp, apart from the occasional knowing wink to the 1970s exploitation films that inspired it.

If you've seen Grindhouse or Planet Terror, you've probably seen the "fake trailer" for Machete, a spinoff for Danny Trejo's character in the Spy Kids movies, which I suppose we can't call a fake anymore because not only is there an actual feature film, but the filmmakers took pains to include nearly every shot from the fake trailer in the finished flick. A few shots might look slightly different, but it’s a close enough match to be an impressive feat.

Machete works more effectively than Grindhouse as a tribute to the exploitation and grindhouse films of the 1970s, because it works as a straightforward action film. It doesn't lean on gimmicks of pretend skipped reels or spliced-up film, apart from a few film scratches and pops during the opening sequence, which sets the stage for the rest of the movie.

Oh, yeah, the plot. There is a plot, and in fact some people are fussing over its political implications. Machete (Danny Trejo) is a former Federale whose family was killed by a nasty South American drug lord, Torrez (Steven Seagal). Machete resurfaces in Austin as a day laborer, but instead of being asked to work on a sewage system, is approached by Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate anti-immigration Texas State Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). Meanwhile, federal immigration officer Sartana (Jessica Alba) is keeping an eye on the taco truck near the day laborer pick-up, run by the mysterious Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who may be helping undocumented workers. When the assassination plot goes deeply wrong, everyone is pulled into a wild ride that could lead to an all-out war between undocumented workers and their champions, and the rabid anti-immigration politicians.

That’s barely scratching the surface -- I haven’t mentioned Fahey’s drug-addled daughter, played by Lindsay Lohan; Machete’s brother who is now a priest (Cheech Marin); or the border town sheriff who delights in gunning down Mexicans at the border (Don Johnson). Tom Savini shows up briefly but memorably as a paid assassin. Daryl Sabara is a day laborer with ideals. Electra and Elise Avellan, who played babysitters in Planet Terror, are back ... this time as nurses. Predators director Nimrod Antal even appears, in a memorable role as a Hungarian security guard.

The political implications of the plot are perhaps the weakest part of Machete -- a little too heavy-handed, and not adding much to the story itself. On the other hand, the resolution is so over-the-top that it's difficult to take any of it seriously. I was reminded of the moment in Planet Terror in which Bruce Willis's character explains how he and his fellow soldiers ended up the way they were, which involved Osama Bin Laden ... a goofy political reference rather than actual politics. Anti-immigration proponents may not like the message in Machete, but I'd hardly call it propaganda.

The strongest parts of the film are the performances, which are straightforward and not campy, but still vivid and colorful. Trejo is exactly what you want from a character named Machete, Jeff Fahey nails the nasty political consultant role beautifully, and Michelle Rodriguez is simply fabulous. Robert De Niro and Don Johnson are believably Texan, and even the minor characters are all memorably portrayed, right down to those two guys washing dishes in a kitchen.

Goofily memorable one-liners, over-the-top sex scenes, body parts a-flying, this is not a movie for your mother’s Sunday School class ... unless Cheech Marin is her pastor. I think this is Robert Rodriguez's best grown-up action flick since From Dusk Till Dawn -- and I won't say "not for the squeamish" since I am squeamish myself sometimes and got a kick out of it.

Austin connections: Troublemaker Studios is in Austin, so most of the crew on this film is local. Much of Machete was shot downtown, and a careful observer will spot glimpses of the Austin Convention Center, the Frost Bank building and other recognizable spots. The exterior of Saint Mary Cathedral plays an important role in the movie, the "fancy" hospital is actually the Driskill Hotel, and of course you'll recognize the State Capitol. If you spot any other familiar landmarks, let us know in the comments.

San Jacinto Hotel

I thought the "fancy" hospital is actually the San Jacinto Hotel -- or atleast that's where the Senator is Bamboozled by the reported (when coming down the stairs).