Machete is played by scary-looking character actor Danny Trejo, whose entire career is based on playing tough Latino hoodlums, as in the recent Rodriguez action thriller Predators. In this film, he’s a machete-wielding Federale who starts out trying to rescue a girl from evil drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). He slaughters at least a dozen bad guys but is ultimately betrayed and left for dead after watching Torrez kill his wife in cold blood.
The next scene launches the viewer three years ahead to a Texas border town. The story changes to Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) running for re-election on a draconian anti-immigration platform. His cynical media manipulation plan includes hiring a Mexican day laborer to hurt, but not kill, him. It proceeds until they unwittingly tap Machete to play assassin. He decides to fight back against the system and predictable mayhem ensues.
Meanwhile, seemingly innocent taco-truck operator Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) secretly runs a sort of underground railroad for illegal aliens called “Operation Network,” while skeptical immigration officer Sartana ( Jessica Alba) keeps a close eye on things while she tries to crack the secret group.
Machete was spawned from a fake movie trailer buried in the earlier Rodriguez (and Quentin Tarantino) exploitation film-homage Grindhouse. The challenge was to turn an amusing three-minute spot into a 90-minute movie. Hardly an auspicious basis for a thoughtful film, but Machete isn’t very thoughtful.
The casting of Machete is part of its charm, if I can call it that: many roles were clearly written for the actors who played them. McLaughin’s troublemaker daughter April was played by Lindsay Lohan, for example, and her first scene has her strung out on crack.
Long-time Rodriguez collaborator Cheech Marin played Machete’s brother Padre, a priest whose parish church includes closed-circuit video monitoring and weapons stashed in a back room. The method in which Padre meets his demise was appalling, even for this jaded moviegoer. Be prepared.
There are lots of subtle sight gags in the film too, my favorite of which was Luz’s secret role as leader of Operation Network, with the figurehead of Shé. The posters, the art and the name itself were a clear nod to Che Guevara, the Argentine guerilla fighter. And yet, no one in the movie noticed the similarity. In another sight gag, one of the bad guys is burned to death, with a kitchen thermometer embedded in his eye (there’s a recurring theme of eye injuries). Zoom in and we see the temperature is “extra crispy.”
I really liked the visual design of Machete. The violence was generally acceptable for this type of film, but after a while I found myself numb and simultaneously amused and disgusted by the special effects.
Would I recommend it? Maybe if you’re into this sort of genre. But don’t be surprised by a half-baked story drowning in blood.