When he made his half of the Grindhouse double bill (2007), Robert Rodriguez also put together a trailer for a film he would like to see. And so, Machete (2010) was born – a Mexploitation action film about an ex-federale who is set-up, double-crossed and left for dead. However, the origins for this project go back even further to 1995 when Rodriguez made Desperado, the second film in his El Mariachi trilogy. It would be the first time (but certainly not the last) he worked with veteran character actor and professional badass Danny Trejo. He’s someone you’ve probably not heard of but have definitely seen. If you need a tough-looking tattooed henchman, he’s your man. While working on Desperado, Rodriguez envisioned Trejo starring in a series of action films as Machete but at that time the director did not have the clout to get someone to bankroll a Latino action film that didn’t feature someone with movie star looks like Antonio Banderas.
Rodriguez never forgot about his pet project and over the years cast Trejo in several of his films. Even though the Grindhouse films were a commercial failure, audiences loved the faux trailer for Machete. Rodriguez managed to convince a Hollywood studio to finance it with a modest budget and used his connections to assemble an impressive cast that included the likes of Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, and “introducing” Don Johnson. However, what worked as a movie trailer be too much of a good thing as a feature film?
The prologue sets up everything we need to know about Machete (Trejo) – he’s a badass Mexican federale set-up by his corrupt superior and left for dead by local druglord Torrez (Seagal). It also sets just the right tone as we see Machete hacking and slashing his way through a house of bad guys with bloody abandon. Meanwhile, in the United States, a corrupt, ultra-conservative Texan senator named John McLaughlin (De Niro), campaigns on a platform of preventing illegal immigrants from crossing the border. He even employs a border vigilante group, led by the brutal Von Jackson (Johnson), to enforce his policies.
Sartana Rivera (Alba) is an upstanding Immigrations enforcement officer investigating the problem through legal channels and ends up crossing paths with Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a no-nonsense taco stand operator who moonlights as a revolutionary operating an underground railroad of sorts for her Mexican brothers and sisters. Machete, now a day laborer (or, at least that’s his cover), is hired by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), a local businessman, to kill the Senator for $150,000. Machete is set up, shot and forced to go into hiding. With the help of Rivera and Luz, he plots revenge on the men that betrayed him.
It’s awesome to see Danny Trejo finally get to carry a film for once and play a character that doesn’t get killed off. He brings his customary intensity as the strong, silent man of action and in many respects the film is Rodriguez’s present to the actor as he has him take down tons of bad guys, look cool doing it, and hook up with many of the film’s lovely ladies, including Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan! Robert De Niro is a lot of fun to watch playing a John McCain meets George W. Bush-esque xenophobic politician. It’s also great to see Steven Seagal as a powerful criminal and Machete’s arch-nemesis, not to mention appearing in a mainstream film that didn’t go straight-to-home video.
Michelle Rodriguez adds another tough chick role to her resume as she portrays the female Mexican equivalent of Che Guevara but with a dash of Snake Plissken. Another fun bit of casting is Lindsay Lohan playing the messed up celebutante child of Booth. She and Rodriguez have some fun riffing on her public persona and kudos to the director for not bowing to peer and public pressure about her party girl reputation and showing that regardless, she still has the acting chops. Rodriguez regulars Tom Savini and Cheech Marin show up in memorable bit parts as a deadly assassin and Machete’s ex-federale now-priest brother.
It’s no secret that Rodriguez is a filmmaker that wears his influences on his sleeve. For example, Desperado was an homage to the Hong Kong action films of John Woo and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Planet Terror (2007) evoked the films of John Carpenter and George Romero. Growing up in the 1980s, Machete is Rodriguez’s love letter to the films produced by Cannon Films during that decade. They were responsible for cranking out an endless stream of generic action films starring the likes of Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff. In these films, the action stars were often a one-man army capable of wiping out the fighting force of a small country seemingly single-handedly. The same goes for Machete who is an unstoppable killing machine bent on revenge.
Machete is full of outrageous, over-the-top violence and inventively staged action sequences, like one scene where Machete bungee-jumps from one floor of a hospital to another with the aid of an evil henchman’s large intestine. In this respect, the film has the same gonzo, go-for-broke action that Rodriguez orchestrated in the underrated Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). Living up to his namesake, Machete finds all sorts of ways to kill the bad guys with a vast assortment of sharp weapons. Machete is a lot of fun and never outstays its welcome as Rodriguez knows how to keep things moving so that things never get boring.
Machete not only features all kinds of wild action sequences but also has something on its mind, commenting on the rampant immigration problems that continue to plague the states along the United States/Mexico border. Along the way, Rodriguez plays up and makes fun of Latino stereotypes (they are all day laborers and love tricked out cars) only to twist them into a rallying cry, a call for revolution that takes full bloom by the film’s exciting conclusion in a way that has to be seen to be believed. Best of all, Rodriguez has created yet another awesome Latino action hero. Forget Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010), Machete is the real deal and a no-holds-barred love letter to ‘80s action films. As great as it was to see many of the beloved action stars from the ‘80s and 1990s, I felt that Stallone’s film never went far enough. Rodriguez’s film doesn’t have that problem as it gleefully goes all the way with its cartoonish violence.