Danny Trejo has long been a member of director Robert Rodriguez’s stock company of actors, usually cast as a glowering henchman to a film’s lead badguy, but he has had a chance to play off that image as the kind-hearted uncle to the titular Spy Kids. Now Trejo is getting a chance to step up to lead actor status with Machete, a role tailor made for the actor by Rodriguez that distills all of his bad-ass roles down in to a highly explosive distillate of pure exploitation cinema.
Trejo’s character of a Mexican federale on the north side of the border was originally created years ago by Rodriguez after he first met Trejo, but didn’t come to lie until Rodriguez used him for a faux trailer as part of Rodriguez’s team-up with Quentin Tarantino to salute the exploitation movie going experience in 2007’s Grindhouse. After receiving much positive reaction to the clip, Rodriguez set about turning the series of barely related action beats into a coherent narrative. The resulting screenplay, which Rodriguez co-wrote with his cousin Alvaro Rodriguez, has Trejo’s former Mexican Federale hiding out in Texas from Mexican drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). Hired to assassinate an anti-immigration Senator (Robert De Niro channeling just a bit of George W Bush’s good ol’ boy persona), it turns out that he is merely patsy in a complicated scheme to raise the Senator’s public approval to help him win re-election and get a boarder fence erected that will help Torrez maximize his profits. Machette joins with the leader of an underground support group for illegal immigrants (Michelle Rodriguez) and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent (Jessica Alba) to stop Torrez and the Senator’s plans.
I firmly expect that there will be some who will read way too much into Machete’s illegal immigrant storyline and pontificate that the movie has some ulterior liberal political agenda. Sure, there’s a moment where a couple of suited lunkheaded bodyguards discuss immigration policy and a variation of Malcolm X’s “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us!” quote pops up. But like the blaxpolitation films of the 1970s, Rodriguez is merely using a fact of life relevant to a portion of his audience and of his own background as a Texan of Mexican descent as a setting to ground his story of revenge in. Is Rodriguez making some sort of political statement about immigration? Probably no more so than Michael Campus was endorsing prostitution when he directed 1973’s The Mack. This is Mexploitation, not a message picture.
As an exploitation film, there are thrills, gratuitous violence and a splash of nudity for spice. Don’t let the appearance of an A-lister like DeNiro fool you in to thinking that there may be more art here than there is. Big name stars have appeared in exploitation pictures before. Oscar winner Shelley Winters in Cleopatra Jones springs to mind. They will again. If anything, DeNiro gives a better performance here than he has in some of the comedies he has appeared in over the last several years, never letting his villainous Senator get too hammy or cartoonish.
For Rodriguez, who isco-directing with his editor Ethan Maniquis, Machete is an extension of his work on his half of Grindhouse, Planet Terror, refining what he learned on that picture. And in many ways, I would say that this is even a better film than Planet Terror. Moving away from the superficial esthetic of faux scratchy prints and missing reels, he is freer to concentrate on the genre’s ethos – stylized and often over the top mayhem, some titillation, all delivered at a breakneck pace designed to entertain and give its audience value for their admission. And in that, he succeeds.