Danny Trejo has acted in more than 200 films and television shows over his career. Still, Machete is his first leading role. Maybe it’s because of the ugly beauty of that face, which in close-up seems as scratched and burned as the grindhouse-style film stock mimicked in Machete‘s opening credits. In contrast to the nipped, tucked, and artificially plumped surfaces that Hollywood usually proffers, Trejo’s complexion is a tactile landscape of pockmarks, furrows, and scars. Just looking at it tickles your fingertips with anticipation. Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis don’t give you much time to pore over it, however. From the gangbuster opening to the final shootout, Machete‘s camera moves quickly and so do its edits.
Machete was spawned from one of the rip-roaring trailers that opened 2007’s Grindhouse, the double feature directed by Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. While Machete doesn’t boast the go-for-broke delirium of Rodriguez’s contribution to that package, Planet Terror (or the gorgeous and inventive visuals his 2005 Sin City), it’s just as gruesome and at times as exhilarating.
When the film opens, Machete is a federale in Mexico, on a mission to save a woman kidnapped by Torres (Steven Seagal), a notorious drug kingpin who punishes him horribly. Years later, Machete’s a day laborer in Texas, where he’s drafted by Booth (a greasy and growling Jeff Fahey) to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), who is seeking re-election on a border-fence platform. Soon Machete is on the run from Booth, McLaughlin, Torres, and Von (Don Johnson), a vigilante in cahoots with the senator. Machete’s hope for survival rests on two women: Luz, a.k.a. Shé (Michelle Rodriguez), who oversees an underground network of illegal immigrants, and Immigrations Officer Sartana (Jessica Alba), who should have an aura of toughness but doesn’t. (Granted, it’s hard to come across as a bad ass in skinny jeans and teetery heels.)
This isn’t a movie made to surprise. Given the hero’s favorite weapon, viewers know going in that as Machete escapes one ambush after another, there will be blood, lots of it, splattered on walls, people, animals, vegetables, hell, even minerals. Heads roll, hands are cut off, eyes say goodbye to their sockets. Some of the killings are so bravura, one can’t help laughing, mainly in disbelief. (Preview audience members cheered and hooted from start to finish.) When Machete ends up in a hospital that treats rebel activists on the sly, you may wonder why his doctor points out that human entrails, when uncoiled, can measure as long as 60 feet. But not for long: the payoff comes in the form of a gag that’s sidesplitting in more ways than one.
The sound design is as excessive and twisted as the images. Just listen to the flinty clink of that machete when it hits metal or bone, or the squish of a cell phone being retrieved from a spot I won’t divulge. And whenever Machete gets it on, which is often (and once with a nude Lindsay Lohan in Lady Godiva blond locks, no less), the ‘70s porn soundtrack kicks in, but of course.
Despite the casting of hammy former heavyweights Johnson and Seagal, it’s Cheech Marin as Padre, Machete’s brother and a renegade priest, who gets the biggest guns—and the best lines: “I absolve you of your sins. Now get the fuck out.” Funny, yes. The height of wit? Not exactly. And though the filmmakers nearly neutralize their political satire by making Von and McLaughlin too cartoonish, they do land a few punches against virulent anti-immigration rhetoric with the senator’s campaign spots (for instance, when animated Mexicans are zapped by electric fences). It’s possible that viewers will leave Machete with more on their minds than the film’s body count or the outrageousness of Johnson’s mutton chops.
It remains to be seen if Machete will catapult Trejo to a new level of stardom, but bets should be placed on Michelle Rodriguez. When shows up for a gunfight wearing an eye patch, a bikini top, and black leather pants, as well as pistols strapped from her hips to her ankles, she is a slo-mo wet dream, instantly iconic (see also: the amputee Rose McGowan in Planet Terror). Rodriguez handles her firepower with aplomb. The end credits jokingly promise sequels to Machete, but man, this girl deserves a starring vehicle of her own.