Though they were all great, maybe the best of the fake trailers that accompanied 2007's Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse was for an imaginary film called Machete. The star is Danny Trejo, who has been around Hollywood since the early ‘80s, almost always in the role of Really Scary-Looking Bad Guy. Here he’s the Really Scary-Looking Hero. Rodriguez, who directed the trailer, went on to make the full feature, opening today.
It’s based on a script he wrote in the early ‘90s with Trejo in mind for the title role, a Federale who, suffering a horrible tragedy at the hands of a drug lord back home in Mexico, finds himself an illegal day laborer in Texas years later. Machete—the name denotes his weapon of choice—is dragooned into the patsy role of a Manchurian-Candidate-style assassination plot by a sinister Anglo rich dude (Jeff Fahey, who’s first-rate).
Soon the Rich Dude, as well as a nativist state senator (Robert DeNiro), a yahoo vigilante (Don Johnson) & Machete’s old nemesis the drug lord (an exuberantly hammy Steven Seagal), are all trying to kill him, & he’s trying no less diligently to return the favor. Bullets & machete blades fly, as do the body parts of countless henchmen.
That’s pretty big-name cast, you may notice. It doesn’t stop there: Machete also crosses paths with Michelle Rodriguez as a gorgeous roach-coach lady who’s a secret revolutionary, & with Jessica Alba as a gorgeous Immigration officer torn between duty & justice. Then there’s Cheech Marin as a priest with a flexible attitude toward the sanctity of the Confessional, Tom Savini as a wound-up hitman named “Osiris Ampanpour,” & even Lindsay Lohan, who spends a great deal of her screen time with no clothes on, as Rich Dude’s messed-up daughter. Still, all this star power doesn’t overwhelm Trejo, who proves surprisingly warm & sympathetic over the course of the film.
As with Planet Terror, his half of the Grindhouse double feature, Rodriguez impressively captures the invigorating raggedness of a good ‘70s-era exploitation flick, both in style & in the increasingly chaotic storyline. The tone is facetious, but the director’s fury at the anti-immigrant hatred that has boiled over recently is real, & as unabashed as that hatred itself, & it gives the movie a giddy, take-no-prisoners energy that seems to have scared the other side a little.
Here in Arizona, there’s been fretting that Johnson’s character—who shoots a pregnant woman to prevent an “anchor baby”—might be intended as a caricature of Joe Arpiao. It’s quite hilarious to see commentators on the Right who would never admit that there’s so much as an iota of racism in their ranting about “illegals” claim that this sleaze parody is going to start a race war (yet somehow when Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris or Kiefer Sutherland were killing or torturing Muslim terrorists, it wasn’t a call to a religious war).
Assuming you’re in some sympathy with its politics, how much you’ll enjoy this movie depends on how strong your appetite is for bloody lurid schlock, & also on your tolerance for heavy-handed message-mongering. On both counts, mine is pretty high, & watching Rodriguez vent his disgust vented some of mine. I emerged from Machete exhilarated.