Machete has been a long time coming, and the so-called Mexploitation film gets an extra kick from the American political climate.
This revenge film's roots go back to co-director Robert Rodriguez's first employment of Danny Trejo, the titular Machete, on the film Desperado. Next, Machete appeared as one of the fake trailers sandwiched in between Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's halves of the B-movie throwback Grindhouse. It was one of the takeaways from Grindhouse: Trejo as a wronged federal who is cloaked with nearly as many knives as a bird has feathers - and that ominous tagline about having "fucked with the wrong Mexican."
A veteran Hollywood actor and a scary-looking survivor of San Quentin, Trejo is an unlikely candidate for the role of the newest superhero in filmdom. But there you have it: Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis have turned this Mexican-American with the fearsome face into the new Charles Bronson. As Machete, Trejo has struck the mother lode of badass.
The plot kicks off when Machete is double-crossed in Mexico and witnesses the gruesome murder of his wife and daughter by the drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). Three years later, Machete is a day laborer in Texas, where a rabid anti-immigration movement is in full flourish, seen primarily in the personages of a shoot-to-kill vigilante (Don Johnson) and Robert De Niro's Sen. McLaughlin, a racist who advocates an electrified border fence.
The film piles on a host of entertaining characters, all of which are one-note caricatures that nevertheless serve the purposes of the film's full-blast trajectory. De Niro does some of his best supporting work in years, and Lindsay Lohan's appearance as a rich little druggie who schemes to increase her web presence could not be better timed.
The violence and the ogling of women's bodies are gratuitous and over-the-top, but the film's self-awareness and the respect it has for its '70s exploitation forebears keep Machete from going over to the dark side. Also in keeping with the exploitation aesthetic is the film's incorporation of topical issues: in this case, border tensions. Machete doesn't probe any intricacies or offer solutions, yet it keeps the issue on a front burner throughout. "We didn't cross the border. The border crossed us" is typical Rodriguez sloganeering.
In the end, Machete may not be all that original, but it is fresh - fresh as a steel blade to the gut.