‘Machete’: Sharp, edgy – and wild

September 1, 2010

Robert Rodriguez is one of those rare filmmakers whose movies – for better or worse – always come alive with his sheer enjoyment of making them.


In the case of “Machete,” that’s a good thing. Unlike his corny kids’ movies (“Spy Kids,” “Shorts”), “Machete” bleeds pure entertainment. Returning to the crank-it-up style Rodriguez brought to his half of the vastly underrated “Grindhouse,” “Machete” comes out swinging – and usually what it’s swinging includes an extremely sharp blade.


In fact, “Machete” was first glimpsed as a coming-attractions trailer between the two halves of “Grindhouse.” With its delicious catch-phrase, “You fucked with the wrong Mexican,” it promised over-the-top action and a dizzying cast that ran the gamut from Jessica Alba to Lindsay Lohan, built around character actor Danny Trejo in the title role.


Rodriguez delivers on the promise of that trailer and then some. Indeed, the first 10 minutes of “Machete” contains more wild action than the climax of most ordinary action films.


No doubt there will be those critics who don’t appreciate Rodriguez’s gory aesthetic. His style here is pure drive-in exploitation film, circa 1973, right down to the choppy edits. Everything is overstated and takes the action two notches farther than you’d expect. Rodriguez is like a kid with a new toy (or an old favorite), amping things to suit his own pleasure center, perpetually asking the question, “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?”


Like, wouldn’t it be cool if Machete, a Mexican federale played by the menacingly scowly Trejo, attacked a drug lord’s headquarters, chopped off the hand of a guy with a gun in it, then picked up the gun, and used the severed hand to squeeze the trigger?


Or: wouldn’t it be cool if Machete mounted a pair of gatling guns on a motorcycle, then flew it off a ramp, shooting bad guys as he soared through the air?


Or … well, put it this way: If Rodriguez could think of it, he has included it in this film. He’s a maestro of mayhem, throwing caution – and, occasionally, dramatic logic – to the wind to assemble the kind of action film that pins the needle on the thrill meter in scene after scene.


His story, such as it is, focuses on Machete, who is left for dead after that opening sequence – and next shows up as an itinerant and undocumented immigrant, looking for work in Austin, Texas. He’s approached by Booth (Jeff Fahey) to do a dirty job: assassinate Sen. McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), an outspoken conservative whose reelection platform centers on closing the borders to the invading hordes of Mexicans.


But it’s a set-up – and Machete finds himself on the run from the law, though he’s not the one who plugged the senator in the leg. He is rescued by members of an immigrant underground, led by a taco stand owner named Luz (Michelle Rodriguez). Both of them, however, are being trailed by Sartana (Jessica Alba), an immigration enforcement cop.


There’s more – much, much more, in fact – involving plots within plots and offering action showdowns with stars like Cheech Marin (as a shotgun-toting priest), Lindsay Lohan, typecast as a rich-kid trouble child with a drinking and drug habit – and even Don Johnson, as an anti-immigrant militia leader. Oh yeah – and Steven Seagal plays a vicious drug lord who happens to be an expert with samurai swords (and whose hairline looks like something not found in nature).


Does Rodriguez have anything serious to say about immigration? Does it matter? (Though he does point out the hypocrisy, hyperbole and fear-mongering of the right wing.) It’s mostly a backdrop and plot device to build to a massive final battle between Mexican-Americans and Tea Party types.


In the midst of it all is Trejo as Machete, a stoic but imposing presence who isn’t afraid to take action – drastic action – without blinking. He’s a chick magnet without wanting to be, an inventive action hero who does whatever it takes to stay alive (even though, despite several gunshot wounds, he seems to have extraordinary healing power). He gives new meaning to the phrase “it takes guts.”


Yes, there will be those who dismiss “Machete” as self-referential or merely sensational. But that would be to deny both the wit and imagination that Rodriguez brings to this extravagantly entertaining movie. Turn your mind off, relax – and don’t take the kids.


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