‘Machete’ movie review: Danny Trejo in Robert Rodriguez madness

Machete started life as a “fake” trailer that preceded the theatrical release of the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse; response was so good that director Robert Rodriguez decided to adapt it into a feature film. 

Another trailer, Hobo with a Shotgun (which preceded the Canadian release of Grindhouse), has also been adapted into a feature-length film. I wonder if a precedent has been set.

That Machete trailer was a perfect little piece of filmmaking, and probably better than the actual movie. But the movie delivers the goods (all scenes and themes accounted for) and then some: numerous additional characters and subplots, and even a socio-political message.

Machete (played by instantly-recognizable character actor Danny Trejo) is a Mexican Federale whose wife is murdered before his eyes by drug lord Torrez (Steven Segal). 

Segal, in his first theatrically-released film in nearly a decade, is hugely disappointing here: too soft-spoken to effectively play a villain in an exploitation movie, too past-his-prime for any convincing combat. Thankfully, there are no less than three other actors chewing up the scenery in villain roles.

Three years later, Machete shows up outside a Texas taco stand looking for work as a day laborer. The stand is run by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who fights for the illegal aliens that surround her, and monitored by Yvette (Jessica Alba), a policewoman tracking illegals. 

Another policeman, Von Jackson (Don Johnson), enjoys hunting and killing illegal aliens for sport; in his first scene, he shoots a pregnant woman, rationalizing “if it’s born here, it becomes a US citizen.”

Machete finds work, but not the kind he’s looking for: businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) hires him to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), who is basing his re-election campaign on getting rid of the illegals in Texas, and building an electric fence to keep them out. Fahey steals the show here with a surprisingly mannered performance; De Niro has less to do, but hams it up wonderfully when he gets the chance.

Like the individual Grindhouse releases, Machete has been modeled after a 1970s exploitation film, and it effectively captures the feel: it plays fast, loose, and unfocused (like most of the director’s films), with excessive cartoon violence and gratuitous nudity. Of course, modeling a movie after low-budget drive-in fare – no matter how well it’s done – isn’t going to appeal to everybody.

What surprised me about Machete was the timely, relevant issue of illegal immigration. Now, it brings almost nothing to the table – the good guys are illegal aliens, the bad guys are anti-immigration, and that’s about the extent of it – but it’s right there, front and center throughout. Rodriguez deserves some amount of admiration for this alone.

My one real qualm here – and it’s the same problem I had with Sylvester Stallone’s similarly-realized The Expendables – is the overuse of CGI, particularly in explosion and blood splatter effects. That’s the one thing on prominent display here that you wouldn’t find in a 70s exploitation movie, and it always kills the vibe when it’s too noticeable.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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