Trejo takes on his signature (and by signature I mean pretty much the only guy he ever plays) role as the toughest of tough guys. In this case a mythic former Mexican federale known as Machete. When Machete goes up against a ruthless drug lord (Steven Seagal) and loses everything he held dear he flees across the border to Texas to make a new life for himself. When a mysterious businessman (Jeff Fahey) hires him to kill an anti-immigration state senator (Robert De Niro), little does Machete realize he’s going to get the chance to settle all of his old scores, once and for all.
“Machete” may have the strangest gestation of any major Hollywood action film I can remember, and that’s before you take into account the fact that it is by and large a love note to Danny Trejo (and I mean that in the macho-est of ways).
Like his Mariachi character, Rodriguez has imagined Machete as a man of myth he has no name and no family. He can’t be killed, no matter how hard you try (and the bad guys try hard). He can beat you in a fight with one hand, all without ever dropping his burrito (that’s not a tasteless jab; it’s an actual scene from the film). Every woman he meets almost instantly falls for him. In fact, there’s a lot of Mariachi riffing going on here, with quite a few shots and sequences coming right out of “Desperado.”
Begun as a fake trailer during writer-director Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” experiment, the original “Machete” trailer consisted of a selection of hilariously over the top hints at a move that could never exist as Machete slashed and burned his way through some web of intrigue or another. Filled with ridiculous sequences like Machete flying on a Gatling gun armed motorcycle or seducing his enemy’s wife and daughter at the same time it served its purpose but also seemed all but impossible to put into an actual narrative which would make any sort of sense.
Rodriguez seems to have realized that as well, as his very first move is to throw sense right out the window.
Instead we get a plot involving a state senator who hunts illegal aliens for sport along with a crazed militia leader (Don Johnson), a plot to build an electric fence along the US-Mexico border, all to increase the price of drugs sold in the US.
Does it work? I have no idea. As a connoisseur of the ridiculous I have to admit I enjoyed it immensely, but there is no doubt that many of the things we take for granted in a narrative film structure, coherence, and dialogue are passed by the wayside. What you get in return is Machete disemboweling one of his opponents and using his large intestine to swing to freedom, and Steven Seagal prancing around trying to do a Spanish accent. How much you appreciate that trade off is entirely up to you.
On the other hand, its passion for the bizarre helps its characters immensely, if not its characterization. There was certainly a question in lot of people’s minds on whether or not Danny Trejo could actually carry a film by himself. The answer, it turns out, is yes provided you back him up with some really interesting (read ‘strange’) characters.
And Rodriguez has, starting with Jeff Fahey’s Booth, who steals every scene he’s in and practically the movie as well. Fahey is entirely in his element as Booth, simultaneously sinister, pathetic and occasionally even relatable. He has Lolita issues with his daughter, he doesn’t mind crucifying a priest, but also realizes what kind of a person that makes him and feels guilt about it. He’s fantastic, and Fahey is fantastic as him. The only other person near as good is Cheech Marin’s shotgun-wielding padre. In fact, the villains as a whole are so over the top you can’t help but laugh and enjoy yourself whenever they’re around, and you’re obviously meant to. It’s obvious the actors themselves are having the time of their lives with some of the ridiculous things they have to do.
It falls apart some when the women show up, partly because they are given the straightest roles and partly because they are often reduced to standing around and looking pretty especially in the case of Jessica Alba’s immigration agent. Mainly because everyone is a foil for Machete and as characters go their entire purpose is to make him look good, not to be people. Rodriguez also tends to still approach characters as a cartoonist, figuring out a look and leaving it, so a Nun with a Gun is often as much development as some of his characters get.
Some of the immigration diatribes grate a little, and the final collision of immigrants and vigilantes is a mish-mash that doesn’t hang together particularly well (a problem which plagued Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” films as well). It’s also probably got too many characters and actually could use some more Danny Trejo. But it’s fun and bizarre and the sort of thing you’ll like if you like this sort of thing. I myself am looking forward to “Machete Kills Again.”