If I were to sum up this film in one word it would be: ridiculous. That’s to be expected though, right? This was never supposed to be a serious film – it was conceived initially as a fake trailer for the Grindhouse Rodriguez/Tarantino double bill a few years back. It was envisaged as a very silly take on 70s exploitation cinema, following one seriously pissed off ex-Mexican Federale named Machete (Danny Trejo) as he hacks and slashes his way to revenge. It’s supposed to be ridiculous, and indeed it is. However, it’s also overly long and, in places, (I can’t believe I’m about to say this) dull.
How that’s possible for a film featuring the title character slicing open a bad guy’s abdomen with a machete, and then using the guy’s intestines as a safety rope to survive a jump from a four-storey window is a real shocker. The problem is that although these hack-and-slash set pieces are gloriously gory, the linking scenes are so bogged down by wooden acting and laden with unnecessarily complicated plotting and political moralising that you completely zone out.
We open in Mexico, where Federale Machete is on the hunt for a young girl kidnapped by local drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). In typical action movie/tough guy fashion, Machete’s bosses want him to stand down – but, of course, he knows right from wrong so attacks Torrez’s compound. Blood spurts, arms are chopped off and bullets fly as Machete slices his way to the naked girl, who then gives him up to Torrez by pulling a mobile phone out of a very, private place. Machete swears vengeance on Torrez after the drug lord uses a samurai sword to decapitate Machete’s wife and leaves him in a burning building to die.
Of course, Machete doesn’t die that easily. He escapes across the border to the US and tries to find work in Texas’ illegal immigrant community. It’s here that the film starts to fall down. Had this been a simple revenge flick with lots of hack-and-slash it would have been silly fun, but once Rodriguez starts to wax lyrical on the social politics of boarder control things lapse into the doldrums. It’s not that I’m against a bit of political activism, nor am I against using a movie to push a social agenda per se, it’s just that that’s not what I signed up for. I also don’t think that this moralising sits comfortably in what is a faux exploitation flick. You can’t be really silly on one hand then ask your audience to take a political point seriously on the other.
Once in the US, Machete is framed for a botched assassination attempt on a candidate for the Texas Senate seat (Robert De Niro). When I watch De Niro here, I can’t believe that people describe him as the best actor in the world. I know he can be toweringly good, the best of his generation, but here his performance is so lazy that it’s obvious to everyone that he’s only here for the paycheck. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt (the same benefit I’m giving to Jessica Alba as the wooden ICE Agent who falls in love with Machete) and say that he was trying to turn in a performance without charm and nuance because he was mirroring the style of exploitation films of the 70s. But perhaps I’m being too generous.
Even Trejo’s performance is a touch wooden. Not that I’m expecting an Oscar-worthy performance from the man, but I had hoped he would at least look like he was having fun. He must be enjoying himself – after all, this is his first (and probably) last time out as a leading man. He gets to strut around looking unbelievably cool, hack people up with a massive knife and, although it beggars belief, have sex with Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsey Lohan and Jessica Alba. Surely that kind of part is the reason most men get into acting? Right?
Anyway, I won’t bog you down with the overly complex plotting but I’ll tell you that the botched assassination attempt was a diabolical scheme by Torrez to ensure De Niro’s politician is elected Senator so that he can build a fence along the border to keep out the ‘illegals’. The idea is that after the fence is built Torrez will be in complete control of who can cross the border. It was pure serendipity that the patsy they chose to take the fall was actually a bad-ass ex-Federale with a score to settle. What were the odds, right? Eventually it all comes down to one bloody fight between Machete and “The Network” of illegal immigrants organised by “She” (Michelle Rodriguez, in the film’s only decent turn) and Torrez’s men.
As you’d expect, there’s a touch of the Western about this scene, as Machete and his crew make their way in a convoy of bouncing cars to rescue a kidnapped Alba. We’re treated to sweeping shots of our heroes against a pleasingly dusty backdrop. Of course, once the fight starts it’s bedlam: 15 minutes of explosions and gun fights and hack-and-slash. There are plenty of suspend-your-disbelief moments and comedy deaths. It’s all very pleasing in a weird way and culminates in a fight to the death between Trejo and Seagal – Samurai sword vs machete.
And what of Seagal? This is supposed to be a retrospective on his work and I’ve not mentioned him much. Funnily enough, he’s actually very good. As ever, his face is strangely immobile and I spent quite a lot of his screen time wondering if he was wearing a wig, but it’s the same old strangely charismatic guy. He’s obviously too old now for a straight action fight scene (hence the swords), but unlike Trejo he is clearly enjoying himself. Every time he pops up in the movie, the screen brightens a little. He’s quite funny, playing the comedy elements with far more finesse than De Niro (did I really just type that?) and generally chewing on the scenery, which is what’s needed here. His death scene had me in stitches because it was totally unreal, just like the rest of the action. He delivers what I’d expected and hoped of the film as a whole, but it’s a shame that its only delivered in parts.