Machete is everything the Grindhouse movie wasn’t. It doesn’t posture. It doesn’t pretend. It doesn’t feel like idol worship. It doesn’t feel like there were too many resources at its disposal to qualify it as a grindhouse movie. It’s rough around the edges, bloody and sexy and loose. Other than the star power involved in supporting roles, it may as well be an artifact from another age, exhumed and shared with the world. But you know what? Who gives a damn if it’s an authentic grindhouse movie or not, just so long as it’s good and entertaining and worth the time. Integrity and credibility obviously have a place in film, but it’s just gas if a movie’s unwatchable. Machete is very watchable, and better yet it’s one of the most fun theater experiences in recent memory thanks largely in part to the rough manner in which it tells its story, the presence of legendary character actor Danny Trejo as an action and romantic lead, and some incredible work by the revitalized Jeff Fahey. Not bad for a movie that started as a jokey fake trailer.
Where The Expendables rode heavily on the back catalog of its stars, Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ movie tumbles its way from one violent action scene to the next with fun character moments and the occasional booty call hanging on the appropriately loose armature of a plot. It doesn’t care if you know who Danny Trejo is, appreciate the idea of a Mexican samuari druglord, whether you get the “introducing Don Johnson” joke in the credits, or if you even know how to spell grindhouse. It just does its thing and for the bulk of its running time, it’s effective.
Trejo plays Machete [who is a supporting character in the horrible Spy Kid movies], a Federali who doggedly pursues ruthless kingpin Torrez (Seagal) to the point where it costs him his partner, his family, and almost his life. Years later he’s trying to get work as a day laborer in Texas right in the middle of a political hotbed involving how to treat illegal immigrants, and he’s swept into the middle of things. Corrupt politicians, shady businessmen, officers of the law of varying loyalties, and a militant faction waiting for their moment to strike all factor into the mix. As far as the story goes, it’s typical exploitation movie fare, just enough to get by and connective tissue for the action scenes. Of course, exploitation movies don’t have the benefit of having the talent pool Rodriguez pulled from, though the casting isn’t wholly successful.
Robert DeNiro is nearly unwatchable here, either not getting fully into the spirit of the movie or overdoing it, delivering a racist backwoods politician that almost feels like a Robert DeNiro impersonator doing their Max Cady impression. As the film progresses and the character is put into crazier situations it’s not as jarring but I think the film would have benefited if it weren’t DeNiro in the role. Shea Wigham, so solid the excellent little horror flick Splinter, is wasted here and just looks bored out of his mind as a truly inept henchman. Don Johnson looks fantastic with his Elvis sideburns and big mirrored sunglasses but is given nothing to do in a thankless role that should have been one of the most broad and colorful ones in the film, and Jessica Alba comes off as a flyweight compared to nearly everyone else in the film. She looks good, but is wholly unconvincing as the female lead and and it’s a shame, because the movie would have been good for her resume had she shone in it. I have no interest in being part of the Lindsay Lohan hate bandwagon but I will say that she’s not horrible here and has a few moments where she looks quite good though the obvious body double during the nude scene was irritating.
Luckily, Jeff Fahey is so good that the negatives pale. This is an actor who I have never felt any affinity for in over two decades of work but when he appeared on TV’s Lost and was so good it made me ponder revisiting his career. He has so much presence and time has been very kind to him, rounding out a performer who could be a serious go-to contender for a lot of the meaty supporting roles. When he’s onscreen Machete is better than it has any right being. Also surprisingly good is Michelle Rodriguez, whose work has never worked for me. She ‘gets’ the material and for the first time actually comes across as genuinely tough and sexy, which is odd since her entire career has been built on that notion. Cheech Marin is really fun in a smaller role, and somehow Steven Seagal comes across smelling like a rose in a ludicrous and horribly [and intentionally] miscast role. Danny Trejo is fun as Machete, though he’s sometimes not aided by some bad blocking in the action scenes and not enough fun “Machete don’t text” kind of moments. Once the initial joy of seeing Danny Trejo as a leading man wears off there is the desire for a little more effort to have been put into giving the character more fun moments. Still, Danny Trejo on his worst day is always fun to watch and this is far from his worst day.
It’s violent, it’s rough around the edges, and it has not a single ounce of ego in what it’s set out to do. A lot of other action flicks can learn from this. And let’s face it, Danny Trejo is our leading man and kills a few dozen human beings, scoffs at injuries to his person, beds Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, and does a pool twosome with Linday Lohan and her mother. If that doesn’t sell you on this film I have no idea what to do with you.