‘Jesus Christ, Machete, you’re a walking shit magnet,’ chides Agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba.) That much is established in the opening minutes of the film that carries his name as, outwitted by evil drug baron Torrez (Steven Seagal,) maverick Federale Machete (Danny Trejo) sees his wife decapitated before his very eyes.
Jump forward three years and Machete, now working as a day labourer on the other side of the border, becomes embroiled in an assassination attempt on right-wing Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro.) Double-crossed and hounded by hired goons, he finds a port in a storm with taco van owner Luz (Michelle Rodriguez,) who in turn is being staked out by Agent Rivera. As you would expect with a Robert Rodriguez film set pieces proliferate, while the plot has more wrinkles than Danny Trejo’s face.
One advantage of making the same film over and over again – which is more or less what Rodriguez has done since his first hit, the low budget El Mariachi – is that eventually you are bound to get it right. Machete – famously starting life as a jokey between-features trailer for Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse project – is a good, old-fashioned 18 certificate romp. It doesn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth the way the sadistic Sin City did, or have the gore factor of Planet Terror, nor is the storyline quite so chilli con barmy as the one in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Die-hard fans may rue this new self restraint (what, no girls in thongs?) but the absence of gruesome violence and overt sexism means that this is Rodriguez’s most mainstream offering since Desperado.
Not that there aren’t plenty of B-movie moments, as when our hero lops off three heads with one swipe of his blade, or jumps out of a window using a stooge’s unravelling intestines as a rope. Rodriguez also channels his love of excess into giving us not one villain but four. Among these, Don Johnson stands out as a soft-spoken vigilante with a fondness for shooting pregnant women in the stomach, but top honours go to a raven-haired and boiler-suited Steven Seagal, who seems remarkably at home whispering obscenities in Spanish.
Perhaps due to the influence of Ethan Maniquis – upgraded from his usual role of editor to co-director – the women come off better in ‘Machete’ than in some of Rodriguez’s previous outings. Although Jessica Alba doesn’t exactly throw her hat in the ring for an Oscar nomination with her portrayal of a government agent torn between duty to her job and her Hispanic heritage, she is definitely much less flat than usual. Michelle Rodriguez impresses with her blend of swagger and vulnerability just as she did in Lost. The only female cast member who might regret her Mexican adventure is Lindsay Lohan, who looks rudderless in a totally superfluous part as the strung-out daughter of senatorial aid Jeff Fahey.
In the title role, Danny Trejo is compellingly craggy and impassive, but he seems to feel the strain of taking on the mantle of leading man at this late stage of his career as he puffs and pants from one scene of mayhem to the next, swallowing what few lines he has in the struggle to catch his breath. Having said that, he fares much better than Robert De Niro, who gives what might just be the worst performance of his life as a senator cynically running for re-election on an anti-immigration ticket. Remembering how his character in Raging Bull would seek penance in the ring for his antics out of it, you can’t help wondering if De Niro is torturing himself in some way by taking on such an ignominious supporting role.
Not to worry, any tiredness in individual performances is more than compensated for by the ever-energetic visuals of co-directors Rodriguez and Maniquis, while charm and whimsy is in good measure thanks to the Tex-Mex milieu and Rodriguez’s gift for throwaway dialogue (Don Johnson finishes lecturing an underling on a kindly note with, “Here, I fixed your gun for you”). Machete isn’t perfect, but it’s probably the best fake B-movie you’ll see until Rodriguez makes the same film again in a few years time.
Best scene: 60 feet of intestines and one leap of faith.
Best actor: Steven Seagal