Look: we don’t need a “Machete” movie. Really. We just don’t. The original faux trailer, first appearing in the 2007 trash homage “Grindhouse,” already covered all the bases, what with the over-the-top action, ridiculous titillation, and narration dripping in sleaze. As a parody of old school previews, it was perhaps the most spot-on of the “Grindhouse” bunch.
Almost immediately, however, writer/director Robert Rodriguez began talking of expanding “Machete” into an actual movie, the kind with a story and everything. This immediately misses the point. The trailer was the punchline, not the set-up; it’s like Mel Brooks actually making “History of the World Part II.” (Proving Rodriguez doesn’t know when to let a joke be a joke, recent reports suggest he’s thinking of making a “Machete” sequel, using a title that’s revealed at the end of the film as part of, you know, a joke.)
Still, here it is. “Machete,” the actual movie. It’s kind of a mess, struggling to figure out how to build a legitimate plot from the random scenes-as-gags that filled the fake trailer. But Rodriguez and company are eager to accept the challenge without taking anything seriously, and we’re left with a surprisingly fun action-comedy mash-up. “Machete” is winking and self-aware, piling ridiculousness upon ridiculousness, eagerly pushing toward cartoonish dark comedy, equally mocking and celebrating exploitation cinema. Which is to say, if you saw “Grindhouse,” it’s more of the same here, only without the fake print damage and other visual tics.
The story sticks quite closely to the one we saw in 2007: ace Federale Machete (Danny Trejo) is left for dead after sword-wielding drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal, looking these days like five guys crammed inside a Steven Seagal suit) murders his family. Years later, while working as a day laborer in Austin, he’s approached by slick millionaire Booth (Jeff Fahey) and hired to assassinate immigrant-hating Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). Turns out it’s a frame-up, and Machete finds himself on the run and eager for revenge.
Eager to give the film a heavy political bent, Rodriguez and co-writer (and cousin) Álvaro Rodriguez (the filmmaker is noted for working closely with friends and family, just as he’s noted for freely sharing screen credit; frequent editing collaborator Ethan Maniquis gets a co-director credit here) push the script into satire territory with intentionally heavy-handed commentary on immigration. It’s mostly painted in broad strokes – De Niro’s blowhard politician and Don Johnson’s greasy border patrol vigilante aren’t meant to be taken seriously in the least – but there’s also a low-grade honest anger that gives the film a sharp edge. Rodriguez allows the exaggerated race war that bubbles under the plot (and darn near erupts full blast in the finale) to hide some heavy truths, reminding viewers that the U.S. runs on immigrant labor. The script introduces “the Network,” an underground community of illegals, making sure to reiterate themes of America as the land of opportunity and immigrants (legal and otherwise) as honest, hard-working folks grappling with a broken system (broken on both sides of the border).
But we do not come to “Machete” for an immigration debate, and Rodriguez plasters his movie with wildly entertaining splatter-heavy action, dopey T&A (heavy on the T), and camp so thick you could slice it with skull-scraping surgical equipment. (Oh, Machete loves him the skull-scraping surgical equipment.)
The script gets far busier than it needs to be, and the running time comes off as overly padded, with subplots about Lindsay Lohan being slutty and Michelle Rodriguez being a bad-ass and Jessica Alba taking the movie way too seriously. It’s cluttered, but in an in-the-moment way that works in its favor; things fall apart after the credits roll, but before then, we’re so whipped up by Rodriguez’s manic energy we don’t really mind. There’s an anything-goes flair that’s just plain fun because, hey, the only thing you know about what’s coming next is that it’s bound to be outrageous.