Writer/director Robert Rodriguez squeezes in every ugly stereotype he can regarding illegal immigration opponents in his new Mexploitation romp Machete.
And there’s plenty of room left over for splattered body parts, crooked politicians, and extreme stunt casting. You don’t make Lindsay Lohan show up in a nun’s habit if you’re not gunning for some cheap thrills.
Conservatives shouldn’t be surprised that Machete takes a strong pro-illegal immigration stance. Rodriguez assembled a trailer for the film a few months back trashing Arizona for daring to enforce its borders.
That was just the beginning. Machete features more political speeches than the Democratic National Convention, and the content overlap is considerable.
But the bigger sin for audiences is that Machete isn’t much fun. There’s nothing quite as joyous as a good, old-fashioned B-movie, something the recent film Piranha 3D reminded us in spades. Machete, by comparison, strains to be funny but rarely makes us smile, and its action sequences border on the monotonous.
How many times can you watch someone get disemboweled by a sharp instrument?
Veteran actor Danny Trejo is Machete, a character created for one of the faux trailers attached to the Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino 2007 film Grindhouse. The film opens with a Mexican crime lord named Torrez (Steven Seagal, hamming it up nicely) killing Machete’s wife and leaving him for dead.
Flash forward three years, and Machete is just another day laborer looking for gigs near the border between Texas and Mexico. He’s summoned by a political wrangler (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate Sen. McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), an incumbent whose anti-immigration rhetoric compares Mexicans to leeches — and worse.
But it’s all a setup, a faux hit meant to boost the senator’s electoral hopes. Now, Machete wants revenge, and the brooding vigilante isn’t shy about getting the job done.
Along the way Machete runs into a soft-hearted immigration official (Jessica Alba), an immigrants’ rights leader (Michelle Rodriguez) nicknamed “Shé” as in Ché, and a whole lot of thugs to impale.
Trejo’s deeply lined face and hulking presence seem the perfect match for a character like Machete, but the actor’s dry line readings rob some of the fun from the performance.
It doesn’t help that he rarely has anything interesting to say. His comic highlight comes down to three words, “Machete don’t text,” and it’s all downhill from there.
Subplots all but drown out the main story, from an “underground railroad” style immigration system dubbed the “network” helping illegals make it in America to a vile Minuteman-type vigilante (Don Johnson) who delights in shooting pregnant Mexicans to avoid the whole “anchor baby” mess.
“They call us vigilantes, but it’s really vigilance,” the character snarls after putting a poor woman down.
De Niro’s presence here is baffling. He plays a red meat, red state politician, briefly labeled as an independent. His heart is so cold that he tapes himself killing illegal immigrants so he can show the footage to his base.
“Our supporters are gonna like that a lot,” he says.
At times, the dialogue in Machete sounds like an Air America broadcast — not that many people would even know what that is. “This state runs on illegal immigration … it keeps the wheels turning,” Fahey’s character says at one point
This doesn’t mean Machete doesn’t have its goofy moments. Consider Machete’s escape during a gun fight using the intestines of an enemy as rope, or how Seagal riffs on his own image to give his villain some bite.
Cheech Marin provides the film’s few laughs playing Machete’s brother, a priest who knows how to expunge sin — and kick arse as well.
Let’s not forget Lohan’s turn as the daughter of the man who set Machete up. It’s an embarrassing role on too many levels to count, but let’s tick off the top three: she’s naked in the movie as if she were an unknown starlet in a Skinemax flick, her character’s first scene has her strung out on drugs, and she dresses up as a nun for no other reason than the image looks cool on the poster.
Machete’s script hits a rare profound note when one character wonders why Americans let illegals watch their children but won’t let them become citizens. But it’s soon back to business as usual, painting border enforcing Americans as hate mongers.
“There’s the law, and then there’s what’s right,” Alba says at one point. Then: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
The only agitprop missing is the Glenn Beck doppelganger, but since the film’s creators are already discussing sequels perhaps they’re saving him for Machete: Part II.
Rodriguez shares directing honors here with longtime editor Ethan Maniquis, and it’s tempting to say the former let the latter take the reins. Rodriguez is responsible for one of the most watchable horror romps in recent memory, From Dusk Till Dawn, and even his misfires are crudely compelling.
His light touch is sorely missing here.
The fake Machete trailer promises thrills, kills, and glorious B-movie fun. The actual movie is an ugly mash-up of ham-fisted rhetoric and limp action that won’t change a single heart or mind.