The permanent scowl etched into the ungodly face of Danny Trejo has helped the former San Quentin State Prison boxing champion parlay his talent for the terrible into a decorated Hollywood career. Trejo’s specialty has been wielding that hellish face like a Mexican Medusa to command scenes as a solid supporting player. His leading roles have been limited, until now. Trejo is Machete, a Federale-turned Texas day laborer with an uncommon proclivity for blood-soaked justice.
The opening sequence is a tragic prelude establishing both Steven Seagal as a slimy criminal kingpin and Machete as a brutally violent and highly skilled swordsman — er, macheteman. Cut to Machete, anonymously mingling with a host of Mexican workers, most of them illegal no doubt, under the watchful eye of Immigration officer, Sartana, played as poorly as you might expect by Jessica Alba. Machete is singled-out by the mysterious Booth (Jeff Fahey) who taps the gruff, altruistic vigilante to assassinate the controversial Sen. McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). McLaughlin is running on an anti-immigration anti-Mexican platform, so it only seems logical to Booth that Machete would be eager to eliminate the racist, gun-totin’ cowboy senator.
Turns out it was all a setup. Booth is actually one of McLaughlin’s henchman cooking up a plan to get the senator reelected. Naturally, this doesn’t sit too well with Machete. The result: people die. Lots and lots of people die, brutally, disgustingly, hilariously.
“Machete” is an extension of the general grindhouse revival spearheaded by exploitation fanboys Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Their 2007 double-feature “Grindhouse,” a scratched and tattered slice of pure Americana pulp resurrection fantasy, laid the groundwork for “Machete’s” homage to absurdism. Although “Machete” was written by Rodriquez in 1993, a fake trailer for the then non-existent film was created specifically to play with the release of “Grindhouse.” The reception was so positive, with some reviewers even giving the “Machete” trailer higher marks than either “Planet Terror” or “Death Proof,” that the trailer was fleshed out into a full-length feature.
Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis take great care to recreate that distinctive tone, and it looks like they either recreated or even inserted scenes from the trailer directly into the film. The directing pair walks a tight rope throughout the film, meticulously wary of falling into the trap of indulging in what they’re supposed to be satirizing. “Planet Terror,” Rodriguez’s half of “Grindhouse,” occasionally walks the wrong side of that line but “Machete” suffers no such fate. The perfect pairing of a specific, well executed sensibility with the best film cast so far this year makes sure of that.
From now on, when a stuffy studio exec talks about four-quadrant appeal he’ll be referring to the inspired casting of Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin and Lindsay Lohan all in the same movie. And what’s more, Robert De Niro delivers his best performance since “Goodfellas.” His slimy, shameless, utterly hysterical characterization of the Good Ol’ Boy, Know-nothing archetype is a joy to watch.