Maybe that’s why I’m so surprised “Machete” got made. Or maybe it’s my surprise at how much fun I had that’s bleeding over—Who can tell? “Grindhouse” still ranks among my most memorable theater experiences, and “Machete,” a feature-length expansion of the faux-trailer that played between the two films, picks up precisely where "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" left off.
Here, Rodriguez co-directs with his long-time editor Ethan Maniquis, but for all intents and purposes, it feels like Rodriguez is pulling the strings. Double-dipping in the sometimes corny, frequently outrageous, and purposely campy lost and found of cult seventies B-movies is a weird choice for the director, and one that runs the immediate risk of overstaying its welcome. Fortunately, “Machete” earns its existence and then some with a deranged and offbeat mash-up of tawdry action, black comedy, and current events.
It’s no wonder Rodriguez, being of Mexican American dissent and having grown up in San Antonio, Texas, has illegal immigration and border control on the brain. But the way he creatively parlays today’s hot button issue into the silly, cobwebbed genre film of yesteryear is his real stroke of genius. Granted, his sense of humor skews more slapstick than satire, with a levity that might annoy political purists, but it’s all in good, tasteless fun.
At heart, “Machete” is cinematic wish fulfillment for a social subset we’ve never quite seen represented: the Mexican day laborer. Machete (a grizzled Danny Trejo) is our near-mute anti-hero who’s hired by an aide to a political hopeful, only to unwittingly stand as proxy in an assassination attempt—It’s a shot in the leg that gives Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) the shot in the arm his anti-immigration campaign needs. The film eventually climaxes with an appropriately gratuitous (but admittedly overlong) Mexican/redneck battle royale.
The overall successfulness of such sequences highlights exactly what I disliked about this summer’s other action throwback, “The Expendables.” All you can hope for from films like these is some modicum of creativity, and where Sylvester Stallone stutters, Rodriguez concocts a slew of inventive executions, the most notable of which involves the use of human intestines to propel down the side of a building. The dark humor also sets it apart; it keeps the film far and away more engaging than “The Expendables” in its often stifling self-seriousness.
Weirdly, both films also feature gags about texting, and again Rodriguez mines the more entertaining moment. Sorry, Stallone, but it’s tough to top a line like “Machete don’t text.”
Still, “Machete” can hardly be called perfect, and to a large extent it represents a success for Rodriguez both redundant and unchallenging. It is a minor victory, to be sure, and yet “Machete” may be even better than the film that spawned it. That the director managed to repeat himself repeating the actual seventies exhibitionists and still come away with a handful of fresh surprises and laughs is remarkable in itself.
Like “Grindhouse,” it isn’t a film for everyone. If you take any stock in the box office numbers, apparently it isn’t a movie for anyone. Sensitive stomachs need not apply, and those expecting more than a cartoon discussion of border control will be sorely disappointed. But that “Machete” exists at all is a minor miracle for the rest of us—That is, if you can muster any more enthusiasm for this particular, charming breed of unapologetic schlock.
Maybe the biggest surprise of all was the depth of my own reservoir. Robert Rodriguez is one lucky bastard, and so is his audience.