We’re in familiar Rodriguez territory here in this tale of an ex-Federale known as Machete who launches a violent campaign of retribution against his former bosses when they brutally murder his wife and leave him for dead. Hired by some unsavoury types to assassinate a senator, he soon realises he’s been set up again and is a cipher involved in the underhanded campaign of a corrupt senator to rid the US of illegal immigrants from the southern border.
An injured Machete escapes the clutches of his enemies (in the film’s most ridiculously over-the-top scene) and enlists the help of a taco street vendor-cum-revolutionary (Michelle Rodriquez) and a sympathetic border patrol agent (Jessica Alba) to help unearth the conspiracy and bring those who have wronged him to justice, or alternatively, attempt to carve them up into human kebabs-sized slices instead.
Rodriguez is actually credited as co-director (he shares the position with long-time assistant editor Ethan Maniquis) although there’s very little evidence here to suggest another filmmaker’s fingerprints on the finished film. This is a shame as the film itself could have done with a fresh approach. Where the likes of Desperado and Dusk Till Dawn were put together with a real sense of fun and inventiveness, Machete feels like Rodriguez is just going through the motions.
For the most part, there’s an unwelcome sense of déjà vu here, and the director’s usual trademarks (the slow-mo fades, the mixture of guns and religious iconography, pounding Mexican rock score) all seem a little tired and worn out this time around. Even the added socio-political subplot and fun Paul Verhoven-esque satirical commercials sprinkled throughout aren’t enough to inject new life into an overly-familiar narrative, which isn’t helped by a slack and uneven pace.
Even the majority of the colourful list of supporting actors fail to make much of an impression. Jeff Fahey is a welcome addition and (rather surprisingly) fellow villain Steven Seagal (wearing what looks to be a bad Pocahontas-type wig and a brown, loose-fitted brown khaki military jacket/maturity gown) gives the most relaxed and fun performance of his career to date, although when you have an overweight, DTV superstar providing a more memorable turn than that of Robert DeNiro (given very little to do here as the gun-tooting senator) you know that something is amiss. Lindsay Lohan looks suitably scuzzy in her role of Fahey’s slutty daughter, but it does make you wonder if she even avoided the make-up trailer all together and just found her own way to the set after a heavy night on the tiles.
Trejo (who has been a regular and welcomed fixture in Rodriguez’s films since 1995’s Desperado) asserts himself quite well in his first lead performance, but he isn’t given much to do and he’s playing a character, the likes of which we’ve seen different variations of in the director’s work numerous times before.
For all its failings, the film does occasionally come alive, and a superbly-staged church shoot-out sequence with Cheech Marin as a gun-tooting padre (set to a rendition of Ave Maria on the soundtrack), plus a effectively nasty slice and dice pre-credit sequence hint at what could have been. The opening truly looks like it has been unearthed in some kind of vault for unseen 70’s exploitation features (further enhanced by the faked distressed film look). This fun visual device soon disappears (much like it did in Grindhouse), and it also seems to take with it the entertaining and sleazy quality which the film could have greatly benefited from.
Although hardened fans may feel that the director has delivered exactly what they were looking for, if you’re expecting a film which pays homage to the genre it’s originated from, yet at the same time, still retains a unique vision (which Death Proof almost managed to do), this is not it. Rodriguez has the resources at his disposal to basically make whatever he wants and Sin City proved that he can still deliver the goods on both a visual and visceral level. Machete feels like a step backwards for a filmmaker who is capable of so much more.
For a film which famously started life as a fake, Gridhouse-esque trailer, maybe it should have stayed in that fun format (with audiences having to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps) instead of striving for feature-length legitimacy.