Destined to achieve the cult status it desperately seeks, MACHETE is the AIRPLANE of b-grade action pictures. Painting with a broad satirical brush, producer/co-director Robert Rodriguez delivers an entertaining movie loaded with inside jokes poking fun at a movie genre that has flourished with the explosion of the direct-to-video/dvd/download market. But MACHETE fails to elevate that genre artfully culminating in over-the-top action sequences buffeted by an energetic performance by its 68 year-old star.
MACHETE is funny without being as sharp as the various knives employed by the title character. That character is played by the grizzled and rough looking Danny Trejo, an actor who has made a career out of playing vicious tough guys with little audible dialogue. As Machete, a former Mexican Federale, Trejo is given his biggest role yet, but with spotty dialogue and action sequences clearly shot around his age—he’s 68. Trejo is certainly capable of more and this characterization is exactly what is expected of him. Machete speaks with his long cutting blade—he’s a man of few words, who romances shapely women half his age with his experience, tattoos, and quiet cool.
Following the murder of his wife and child in Mexico by drug cartel leader Torrez (Steven Seagal), Machete somehow escapes to the US to eke out a meager existence as a undocumented worker. But the political winds are changing rapidly and a crooked Senator (played by Robert De Niro) is seeking to build an electrified fence along the border. That Senator has ties to an extremist group led by Lt. Stillman (a portly Don Johnson) and a relationship with the violent Booth (a slick Jeff Fahey). In time, Machete will have to leave the immigrant worker game and take up his signature weapon to root out corruption and exact revenge on those that have wronged him.
MACHETE works best as a cheesy and sleazy action film. It’s funny in a subtle Zucker Brothers way. The Zuckers along with writer/director Jim Abrahams struck gold in 1980 with their parody of the airplane genre. And like the Zuckers, Rodriguez and his co-director Ethan Maniquis have been able to skillfully recreate the look and feel of the b-grade action film source material right down to the music and title sequence. But this is also the film’s problem—sloppy plot development and ridiculous dialogue makes the entire film seem cheap and exploitive instead of sharp and inventive. Where Quentin Tarantino uses old movies and specific unsung often lurid genres as a jumping off point to fashion artful and entertaining epics, Rodriguez and Maniquis wallow in b-grade foolishness. I completely get the satirical posturing of the MACHETE narrative, but it is so broadly written that the simple and direct approach effectively dumbs down the message.
Where THE EXPENDABLES was just crazy fun, MACHETE aims to be a bit higher brow within the same nostalgic container. It isn’t too much to ask that a movie that attempts to deal with a potent and current political and social issue through humorous parody also be witty and intelligent. While there are flashes of brilliance in MACHETE, none of these threads pan out effectively. What’s left is drive-in Grindhouse goofiness. And that will be enough for most viewers particularly those that geeked on the GRINDHOUSE film that gave birth to this opus. But the narrow focus on b-grade action films and the necessary R-rating will limit the audience for this film. I wouldn’t be surprised if like other niche offerings of the summer MACHETE does not resonate with huge box office numbers.
Loaded with whacked out performances from Hollywood’s fringe (complete with a topless Lindsay Lohan and a Samurai sword wielding Steven Seagal), MACHETE isn’t the event picture the lagging summer needed. Instead it’s another parody likely to produce more guffaws than emulators.