When it comes to movies, each individual person has their own specific conception of bliss. Some movies are able to unite us, such as The Wizard Of Oz or The Godfather or Raiders Of The Lost Ark or Spider-Man, but more often there are movies that hit center on a much more esoteric bull’s-eye. My own personal realm of movie heaven would be stocked with grizzled character actors, beautiful Latin women, ridiculous action scenes, beautiful Latin women, and great white sharks. In other words, if Lee Marvin had ever made a kung-fu movie with Raquel Welch at Seal Island, it’d be framed in gold on my movie shelf. I don’t have that, but I do have Machete.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I fully understand that even as far as the modest goals it sets out to achieve, Machete could be a smarter, sharper movie. Honestly though, the idea that anybody got it made in the first place can’t do anything but make me happy. That’s kind of what Machete co-writer/co-director/co-producer/visual effects supervisor/etc. Robert Rodriguez does: He takes all of the elements that I personally tend to love most about movies, and generally ends up with a final product that isn’t quite as satisfying as it could and should be, but goddamn do I love it that he tried.
Machete stars one of my favorite character actors, Danny Trejo – has been ever since his essential, haunting final scene in Heat. Trejo has played the heavy in more movies than is probably possible to count, but it turns out he’s a worthy action lead, even when buried under an avalanche of distracting co-stars and busy subplots, as happens in Machete. Danny Trejo is a legitimate real-world tough guy with a wonderful relief map of a face. He’s too often cast as the second-second-assistant to the main villain by filmmakers of limited imagination. Thankfully, limited imagination is one charge you could never make stick to Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez consistently casts Trejo in spotlighted roles, and by the time 2007’s Grindhouse rolled around, he cut a then-imaginary trailer for a Mexploitation movie starring Trejo as a super-violent superhero of Shaft-sized proportions. That trailer was so well-received that Rodriguez got to turn Machete into a full-length feature, giving Trejo his long-overdue due. I’m happy it happened.
I’ve heard some criticisms of Machete already. It’s true, for a two-hour flick there’s not much story to speak of here. The great director David Lynch says that he puts ideas for scenes on index cards as he comes up with them, and once he has around eighty, he makes the movie. I imagine that Robert Rodriguez works much the same way, although he seems to toss the cards up in the air, and lets the scenes land where they may. Weirdly, he (and co-writer Alvaro Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis) keep closely to the plot of the Machete trailer from Grindhouse – they seem more concerned with connecting those dots than to construct a fresh, organic feature.
The plot of Machete sees our hero, a disgraced-Mexican-Federale-turned-day-laborer, wrapped up in a cartoonishly-exaggerated political conspiracy wherein a fervently xenophobic Senator (Robert De Niro!) is running a campaign based on an anti-immigration platform that is secretly funded by a shady advisor (Jeff Fahey), a border vigilante (Don Johnson), and a Mexican crimelord (Steven Seagal – and you sure did read that right, he plays a Mexican in this movie.) Into that roiling stew of insane characters are thrown a beautiful immigrations officer of conflicted agendas (Jessica Alba), an underground revolutionary who drives a taco truck (Michelle Rodriguez, no relation), a coke whore (Lindsay Lohan), and Machete’s brother, now a priest (Cheech Marin). If that list sounds like a few too many attention-grabbers for one inexpensive modern-day exploitation flick to serve, that’s because it probably is. Still, I’m not sure if it could have been any other way. The over-stuffed nature of the movie plays into the joyful insanity of the entire enterprise, and almost all of these stunt castings are a crazy, silly kick.
Pretty much all of the main cast get the tone right. Robert De Niro is obviously having a good time playing the over-the-top satire of the immigration issue. He’s pretty clearly doing a very vague riff on the squinty, mock-sincere, play-cowboy tendencies of that rascally little Georgie Bush Jr., and it’s fun to watch the great actor having this much fun. Jeff Fahey plays the main antagonist of the piece, and between his role in Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, his stint on Lost, and his appearance here, it’s been a nice never-knew-we-missed-you resurgence for the character actor. Hopefully we’ll keep seeing more of him. Don Johnson is also a surprisingly great hiss-able villain, as the most overtly racist and casually murderous of all of the villains. Don Johnson is generally written off as one of the more dismissable actors from the decade of cheesy excess (the 1980s), but this would have been a dicey performance for any actor, and he pulls it off with a bizarre kind of charm. Also notable are Rodriguez stock player Cheech Marin, who definitely knows how to wring the comedy out of any situation, special-effects-legend Tom Savini as a murder contractor, torturer, and offerer of sardonic statements (man do I wish this guy got to act more often! See Knightriders, people!) and up-and-coming character actor extraordinaire Shea Whigham, as a sleazily apathetic hitman henchman.
Steven Seagal kind of warrants his own paragraph for his work in Machete, although I’m reluctant to write it because I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the moments of insane hilarity that his presence brings to just about anything. Unlike the rest of these guys, Seagal was never a serious actor, and he certainly doesn’t surprise on that score in Machete. The difference is that Seagal never seemed to be in on the joke, and it seems that, in this movie, he finally kinda gets it. He’s about as good at playing a Mexican as he was at playing an Italian-American or a Native American, but at least he looks like he’s having fun for once. Seagal is incongruously dressed like North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il for all of his scenes in Machete, and he’s as big as a bear at this point, but his appearance and his abhorrent attempts at a Mexican accent only add to the hilarity of his performance. Intentional or not, it’s funny as hell. (Hell being a concept that I apparently find to be hilarious, much like Seagal’s recent film A Dangerous Man, which most people would equate the prospect of watching with hell.)
Meanwhile, Jessica Alba is in the movie mainly to look incredible. She excels at that job. Some small-minded people like to snipe at Alba’s merits as an actor, but she plays the tone of this movie exactly right – as well as anybody in the film, in fact, and this cast includes Robert De Niro. The movies need actors like Jessica Alba, who look like every inch the movie star but are also willing to have fun. I mentioned Raquel Welch earlier, and there’s some correlation to be drawn. People will always try to draw limitations around actors who are primarily known for their phenomenal looks, but do those people ever consider the environment? What I mean is, would you want to see Meryl Streep in Jessica Alba’s role in Machete? No you goddamn wouldn’t. You want someone who looks like Jessica Alba, but just as importantly, you want someone who’s willing to be as silly and playful as the rest of the movie is. The same goes for Michelle Rodriguez. She’s got more of the lady-badass role to play than Alba does, but that’s her stock in trade after all. Michelle Rodriguez was the most likable character in Avatar, and she brings the same sense of tough-but-not-too serious to this movie. The only member of the lady side of the cast who doesn’t come off as well is Lindsay Lohan, who doesn’t seem to be in on the joke, and if she is, she seems bored by it. It’s not the most lively performance, and honestly, it wouldn’t have taken that much effort to light it up a little. Still, now I can say I’ve seen a movie in which Lindsay Lohan has a brief scene acting against Robert De Niro, one of the greatest film actors of all time.
Machete the movie is a rambling, busy, episodic affair that eventually brings all of these characters together, ultimately culminating in a multi-factional skirmish so full of absurdity that it actually reminded me exactly of the brawl in Anchorman. (The Mexican ice cream cart salesman running behind the tricked-out muscle cars puts it over the top just a little.) The movie is often dumb where it could be smarter, in that it should probably let some of its more ridiculous notions play out a little longer, and it really does lose a lot of steam over the course of its running time, losing focus on Trejo’s main character along the way…
The fact remains that Machete is a Danny Trejo movie co-starring Jessica Alba and Robert De Niro. No one else was gonna give that to me. Therefore, my sincerest appreciation must go out to Robert Rodriguez and company, wherever they may be. I won’t be arguing for Machete’s place on AFI’s Top 100 Greatest Of All Time list, but that list features The Birth Of A Nation, The Sound Of Music, and Tootsie, and given the fourth option I know full well which movie I’ll be returning to most often.