MACHETE, Robert Rodriquezs homage to grindhouse genre, is a bracing concretion of advocacy filmmaking and raucous hyperbole. In spirit, it is the unexpected successor to the likes of Rabelais, who used giants and satire to bring low the status quo. The giant here is the title character (Danny Trejo), a former Mexican federal agent out for, what else, revenge. Hes a man of few but well-chosen word and blows from his eponymous choice of weapon that are even more well-chosen. His targets, are suitably large, as well. A pompous drug lord (an inky-haired Steven Segal) and a state senator (Robert De Niro with a Texas twang) who dreams of an immigrant-free America riding a swelling tide of populism.
The vernacular of this medium is found in beheadings, dismemberments, sultry come-ons from willing, usually naked, nymphets, and lots and lots of nasty ways to die. All that happens in the first five minutes of MACHETE, but rather than leaving the flick with nowhere else to go, it is the perfectly tempered introduction. Machetes wife is killed by the drug lord in front of Machete. Years later, on the American side of the border, he falls in which a band of activists bent on changing Americas attitude towards undocumented aliens. When Machete is hired to assassinate the senator by a mysterious stranger (Jeff Fahey) with a bottom-line understanding of how the economy runs, its just the first step into the de rigeur world of seedy politicians, their even seedier financial backers, and the veritable gaggle of voluptuous and very willing women.
In keeping with the classic grindhouse tropes, these are characters who live their highly stylized lives at the heightened pace of the most lurid melodrama and with none of the ill-effects such continuous emotional overdrive would have on mere mortals. Rodriguez here is not working with life as it is, but life as it is imagined in the minds of the downtrodden wishing for justice, or those living gray little lives longing to escape the quiet desperation of the daily grind. For them Grindhouse is a solace and an antidote. For everyone, its a tightly paced action flick that makes wildly imaginative use of the necessary tropes of good and evil, sex and violence.
There is no equivocation about heroes and villains here, though there is redemption for some in the middle. The senator is seen shooting those migrants for sport with his sidekick, Lt Stillman, (Don Johnson,who in the grindhouse universe is an actor puckishly monikered Von Jackson. As for Machetes brother, the padre (Cheech Marin), hes a profane if moral soul who finds ways to bend the letter and spirit of his priestly duties in the service of helping his fellow Chicano find justice in this world. Meanwhile, the immigration agent (Jessica Alba) on the lookout for the mastermind getting migrants across the border is the flip side of Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), the taco-truck owner with a heart of gold for her clientele and something less warm and fuzzy for La Migra. Both fall for Machete, as do the wife of the mysterious stranger and his emotional wreck of a daughter (Lindsay Lohan) for whom filial boundaries are fluid.
The dialogue is quip-filled as well as melodramatic and the writing includes a bevy of colorful bit parts, including a Hungarian-American henchman with a tendency to wax philosophical about plot points and the role of undocumented workers in the flow of American life. That last is a topic much on Rodriguezs mind and never far from his script, which is replete with glimpses of those workers keeping the economy chugging along. In his fantasy, they are also the secret army that takes on the bigots and the hypocrites with a fleet of low-riders and a bad, bad attitude.
In Trejo, Rodriguez has found the perfect incarnation of that armys leader. Trejos hulking physique surmounted by a face that seems to have been carved with the same dynamic tectonic forces that created the Rocky Mountains, is the visual ideal of the mythic hero who really can drive a motorcycle at a helicopter and win the point.
MACHETE is relentless in its gory, hormonal, and iconoclastic sensory barrage. Yet it is never less than methodical in its smarts as it winks at the audience, plants a tongue in its cheek, and demands to be taken seriously as well as licentiously. Its a demand the audience cant possibly resist.