A cut above: Rodriguez’s bloody ‘Machete’ is top-notch B-movie homage
From the belly laughs of “Hot Tub Time Machine’’ to the body count of “The Expendables,’’ movies have lately been a feast of winking retro overkill. Just as the trendlet is getting tired, here’s Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete’’ to show us how it’s done: with wit, moviemaking skill, and a cast to die for. The movie’s an unexpected end-of-summer tonic: a trash guilty pleasure with a healthy (if really violent) sense of outrage. It’s also Rodriguez’s freest movie yet, and possibly his best.
Sure, “Machete’’ is junk — an egregiously bloody, politically incorrect action movie about a badass Mexican Federale (long-suffering character actor Danny Trejo) seeking revenge against both the drug lord who killed his wife and a Texas senator who shoots illegal immigrants for sport. But when I tell you that ’80’s Zen meathead Steven Seagal plays the drug lord and Robert De Niro (in one of his better moods, yet) plays the senator, you may begin to sense the fun to be had with this movie.
“Machete’’ began life as one of the fake trailers in “Grindhouse,’’ the 2007 Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino collaboration that allowed both directors to pay homage to their splattery ’70s drive-in roots. Part of the gag was seeing Trejo, an ex-con and boxer who since the mid-’80s has been a visual signifier of extreme threat in the corner of over 140 movies, pretend to have a shot at a lead role. The far better gag is that Trejo holds the center of the expanded “Machete’’ beautifully, his death-whisper voice and that unforgettable slab of a face, etched with creases and sin, providing an anchor for the supporting stars to wheel around.
They include Jessica Alba as Sartana, a comely INS agent trying to find the center of a secret illegal-immigrant network; Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, the shapely taco-stand proprietor and underground resistance leader; ’80s direct-to-video star Jeff Fahey as the senator’s evil aide; Lindsay Lohan as his slutty daughter; Cheech Marin as Machete’s priest brother; and an unrecognizable Don Johnson as the leader of a vigilante border militia.
Remarkably, just about everybody involved knows how to play this mixture of camp, carnage, and social commentary. Rodriguez can pirouette from a cartoonishly brutal scene of multiple decapitations (Machete is awfully handy with his trademark weapon) to a fake political ad that sounds like the latest sound bite from Arizona to a gratuitous shower scene that slyly uses Alba with her consent to the slapstick comedy of Machete disguised as a gardener while fighting a villain with a lawn edger, and throughout all the changes the tone of engaged mayhem remains consistent.
Like Tarantino, too, this filmmaker has a thing for power-women, and Rodriguez in particular becomes a one-eyed goddess of destruction toward the end. The one actor who falters, interestingly, is Lohan, who’s probably too young to realize the movie’s using her as a joke. Despite “Machete’’ putting her in preposterously comic situations — nude and comatose in the back of a hearse, disguised as a pistol-packing nun — nothing the actress does is remotely funny. Either she’ll wise up with age as her costars have done, or it’s over.
“Machete’’ toys with the stressed-film esthetic of “Grindhouse’’ at first — scratches on the print, missing frames, that sort of thing — but Rodriguez quickly moves beyond it to find his own groove. Much more than a pastiche, like “Planet Terror,’’ his half of the Tarantino collaboration, this is an exquisitely sustained B-movie world suspended halfway between 1975 and now. For the hipster kiddies, there’s a playful, pointed irony that never loses its cool. For the purists, there’s Trejo, who exudes authenticity just by standing there, implacable and mean. How old-school is this guy? As the hero himself reminds us, “Machete don’t text!’’
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.