Let's begin this week's review with a multiple-choice question. Your answer will help determine whether you'll glean any personal enjoyment from a viewing of writer/director Robert Rodriguez's Machete.
Scenario: You've just witnessed a dumpy, slow Steven Seagal wielding his trademark samurai sword once again on the big screen after a nearly decade-long absence from American theaters. But: He's wearing a blatantly fake toupee, a thick makeup tan, and an ill-fitting jacket that looks like a cross between a Nehru and something Kim Jong Il might wear. Plus: He whispers all his dialogue in a Mexican accent so preposterous that the Taco Bell chihuahua must be spinning in its grave. And finally: He's playing a supposedly fearsome drug lord.
Question: What is your reaction?
A. "What have they done to this once-great action hero of the early to mid-'80s? It is an outrage!"
B. "Uh, he looks stupid. Can I go now?"
C. "Making Steven Seagal look even worse than he already does is hardly a clever way inspire laughter. I am bored by this feeble self-parody."
D. "Seagal is awesome! And he's even awesomer cutting somebody's head off!"
If your answer is anywhere near that last choice, then Rodriguez has made your new favorite movie. Everyone else will be turning their noses up at this self-aware replication of '70s-era grindhouse pics, and justly so; it's more of a movie about bad, old movies than a movie itself. While his predecessor and benefactor Quentin Tarantino manages to fuse his love of B-movie tropes into his own twisted visions, Rodriguez mostly just emulates the tropes—albeit with perfect pitch. Machete is one of those films that will delight hardcore outsider-movie geeks while annoying film esthetes with its obviousness.
But Machete is so utterly absurd in its plot and its depictions of ultra-violence that it's difficult not to admire Rodriguez's audacity. When an opening scene includes a car crash, multiple decapitations, a seductively naked woman with a hidden cell phone, a murderous Seagal, and Danny Trejo on the warpath, you know there will be few Inception-style plot-within-plot puzzlers ahead. Machete is what it is: A revenge/conspiracy/action flick laced with political satire and '70s-style goofiness. And why not?
First, let us revel in the cast: Even pushing 70, Trejo is still a bona-fide badass, and possibly the finest thespian to ever graduate from San Quentin. He doesn't so much emote his lines as seethe them, playing a former Federale who lost his family to Seagal's drug kingpin after refusing his bribes. Then there's Robert DeNiro (DeNiro!) as corrupt Texas Sen. McLaughlin, who takes his anti-illegal-immigration stance altogether way too far, palling around with Don Johnson's psychopathic border-patrol vigilante. Plus, we get Jeff Fahey, one of the B-movie greats, still in his post-Lost career glow, playing a murderous lackey with dreams of his own drug empire; Michelle Rodriguez as a bikini-top-and-eyepatch-wearing freedom fighter; Cheech Marin as a deadly padre; and Jessica Alba as an, um, immigration officer.
Does the plot really matter at this point?
To his credit (as well as co-writer Alvaro Rodriguez's), Robert Rodriguez does manage to inject the proceedings with some present-day political mayhem that keeps the story from getting too cute for its own good. Based on a trailer he made for the Grindhouse double-feature, Machete began simply as an amusing amalgamation of scenes showing Trejo busting things up as an action hero from a lost exploitation film. Those scenes are still highlights in the full feature version, but Rodriguez matches them with an equally balls-out sub-plot pitting murderous illegal-alien hunters vs. the Network, a sort of Mexican underground railroad that's also arming itself for the ultimate showdown. While these elements of political satire may irk those on both sides of the issue—the cultural dispute culminates with a full-on armed battle between gangs of stereotypical rednecks and wetbacks—they're mostly an excuse to show hot girls shooting machine guns. In other words, the politics here are not really worth taking too seriously.
And neither is the violence, which is often graphic and extreme, usually to the point of cartoonishness. No doubt, any parent concerned about video-game violence will be appalled by Rodriguez's body count in Machete—but, after all, the movie is named Machete, and the implement makes a significant contribution to the on-screen carnage. Like any exploitation film of the golden age, the director's goal is to provide inventive gross-outs on a small budget, and Rodriguez does not shirk his responsibility in our more enlightened era. One getaway scene involving an unfortunate villain's intestines will long stand as a high (or low) point of the form.
So for those who chose answer D in our pop quiz above, Machete will be a fun revisitation to the gory action films of yore. Rodriguez didn't dumb down the classic exploitation formula for a mainstream audience, yet neither did he really make anything new—it's just a bigger and more self-consciously sillier version. But that may be achievement enough when B-movies today consist mostly of humorless torture porn.
So lighten up, all you other cineastes—Steven Seagal gets his just desserts, just as we always hoped he would.