Movie Review: Machete- Works Best When Exuding Rodriguez’s Exploitative Violence and Style but Gets Sidetracked With Political Lectures

Back in 2007 there was a failed yet admirable attempt by directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino to bring to life the B-movie exploitation cinema known as the grind house, which featured a startlingly unique fake trailer entitled “Machete.” In the trailer a Mexican day laborer played by Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo ignites his revenge in typical exploitative violence that was hilarious and absurd all at the same time. Rodriguez then announced he would be making the fan favorite trailer into an actual film with Trejo in the title role. What could have been an overly fun and ridiculous homage and return to the grind house feel that Rodriguez did so well with Planet Terror actually ends up disjointing itself in the end due to political platitudes and resentment that unfortunately plague Rodriguez’s script. Machete works best when it has the gritty camera work and over the top blood soaked violence and not when it starts to lecture you on the differences between law and justice. Fortunately there are enough absurd moments and intriguing casting choices to make Machete an enjoyable experience overall, which will probably bring a guilty and grimacing smile to your face.

The character of Machete, played by the rough and tough Danny Trejo, was a Federale agent whose wife and child were killed by a notorious ex-Federale turned drug lord named Torrez played in an interesting tongue and cheek fashion by B-movie action legend Steven Seagal. Several years later Machete is a day laborer in Texas where he is then hired by a mysterious business man (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate an overly cliché hate mongering Senator (Robert De Niro) campaigning on the idea of building an electric fence on the border of Mexico. Obviously set up, Machete is then betrayed, double crossed by the very man who hired him who turns out to be the Senator’s advisor who is using the assassination attempt to stir up more votes for the Senator. Machete is then guarded and helped by a secret underground organization, a vigilant INS agent, and his trustworthy weapon of choice, the machete, in the aim to bring down this political conspiracy. While the obvious caricatures of politicians against illegal immigration and the demonization of minute men are soup box moments that are very much in Rodriguez’s intention they end up being radically alienating moments in a film that could have been incessantly more fun than the format allows it to be. Rodriguez has accomplished a great deal with his B-movie style and violence, especially with his Mariachi trilogy. But that style is sort of in the background of Machete as the more guiltily pleasurable moments, such as Machete using a man’s intestines as a support rope, are put to the side amidst Rodriguez’s overly political mantra. Suffice it to say the script is creative when it wants to be but sets out to excessively harangue the audience for a majority of the time on screen which is the film’s unfortunate crutch.

Of course that exceptionally over the top violence and inventive gun action that Rodriguez is known for is layered through out the film and makes it absurdly entertaining. Much like his exploitation westerns in the Mariachi series, such as Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the gun play is exaggerated, the blood effects excessive, and the situations even more ridiculous. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing Cheech Marin as a priest executing a man who is pleading for mercy with a response, “God has mercy…I don’t,” and blood exiting like a fountain from the man’s head. Of course there is a lot of sword and knife play seeing as that is Trejo’s specialty in all of his Rodriguez roles, referencing the knife assassin he played in Desperado. When there is that gritty and grainy atmosphere to the film as if it were shot on a damaged 16mm reel the film feels authentic and stylistically genuine. It’s just unfortunate when it takes a break from that B-movie exploitation absurdity for a soap box session on completely biased and excessively demonizing stance on illegal immigration. Certainly there can be some exaggerated elements for plot devices and character caricatures, but Rodriguez doesn’t stop there and basically utilizes Machete as a platform for a political stance. Instead of feeling like a movie with a message it inevitably feels like a missed opportunity for a pure exploitation violence flick that could have been homage to the grind house days. Planet Terror also had some political undertones, but those were in the background and never messed around with the flow of the film as a whole. In Machete there is just an uncomfortable feeling of being lectured to which is not the point of exploitation cinema. Again the film works best when the action is swift, the one-liners are consistent, and plays off its intriguing and off kilter cast selections.

If you had told a friend that you were seeing a Steven Seagal film in the theaters they probably wouldn’t believe you seeing as how all of his films have been straight to DVD releases for well over 5 years. But in Machete Seagal plays a Mexican drug lord who wields a Samurai sword to execute his victims and does a good job at just being the persona of Steven Seagal in a fitting display of silliness. Trejo in the title role exudes a particular roughness that many actors without his particular experiences could articulate with action or presence. The rest of the cast works well with the scripts more playful and ridiculous moments, including Cheech Marin as a priest and Lindsay Lohan as a vengeful daughter dressed as a nun. Don Johnson and Robert De Niro work well with what they are given despite being the punch lines on Rodriguez’s interpretation of discrimination and vile racism. The casting choices and the moments right before the credits when Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again are promised returns allude to the idea that Rodriguez was initially going out to make a parody of B-movie exploitation films but ends up just being his own take and homage to them. Fortunately either one works for an entertaining outcome though a parody would have eased up on the lecture front and given more time to Trejo’s vigilant cause of revenge and justice. That doesn’t mean that it’s not hilarious to see Trejo jump off a ramp on a motorcycle supporting a Gatling gun in the grainy film presentation.

Perhaps Machete would have been better off as one of those rare short film trailer gems that the internet is so good at preserving but in retrospect the final outcome is an entertaining one. All of the excessive violence of hands being chopped off and blood splattering all over the walls is grotesquely engaging while all of the characters and the cast make Machete a bloody good time. However, those interrupting moments of Michelle Rodriguez lecturing Jessica Alba’s supposedly ignorant INS agent of the differences between law and justice serve as a side track that goes too far for the style and feel B-movie exploitation was intended for. Rodriguez’s mix of Planet Terror’s grind house style and his signature take on gun play and violence from the Mariachi trilogy puts life into Machete turning out an entertaining exploitation flick with Danny Trejo at the helm of a surprisingly intriguing cast. But there isn’t a moment that is as refreshing or unique as the original trailer made it out to be and simply acts as a B-movie homage rather than a fully witty parody of the same genre.

Grade: B-

One Response to “Movie Review: Machete- Works Best When Exuding Rodriguez’s Exploitative Violence and Style but Gets Sidetracked With Political Lectures”
  1. hotjamenson says:

    Can’t wait to watch this movie!!! I hope it’s better than a B-….

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