If Inception is this summer's smartest cinematic thrill ride, Machete sits at the opposite end of the spectrum.
A loud, giddy, carnal blast from one of cinema's most relentless schlock auteurs, Robert Rodriguez's Machete is best enjoyed with your brain switched off.
Billed as a "Mexploitation" flick and doffing its sombrero to the likes of Coffy and Shaft, this over-the-top pastiche of Westerns, revenge thrillers, cultural stereotypes and soft-core porn will be catnip for those who flocked to Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's 2007 cult opus, Grindhouse.
It was within Grindhouse that the world first glimpsed Rodriguez's blood-soaked vision for Machete. Included as one of the fake trailers bridging Planet Terror and Death Proof, audiences were treated to the sight of eternally gruff character actor Danny Trejo flinging all manner of sharpened metal at villains and making time to mack on the ladies. Over the top and drunk on killer taglines -- Machete's most quotable line is unsuitable for print here -- it was an amusing lark, albeit one with no apparent future beyond Grindhouse.
But Rodriguez has never been one to let a thin premise get in the way of a full-length project, so it wasn't long before Machete moved from two-minute trailer to feature film. Even more improbably, Rodriguez assembled a roster of actors that seems like, on paper, a spectacular mismatch: Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba all turn up over the course of Machete's hyper-violent 105 minutes.
Yet everyone brings a loopy conviction to their roles, however anemically written (Robert Rodriguez, along with Álvaro Rodríguez, penned the screenplay). Despite several tongue-in-cheek (and other body parts) set pieces, Machete, which was filmed in Austin, works, even though common sense suggests that it should not.
The plot is simplicity itself, culled from decades of similarly themed films. Machete (Trejo) is, as the film opens, a Mexican federale whose family is brutally murdered at the hands of ruthless drug lord Torrez (Seagal, sporting the worst Spanish accent ever attempted). Although left for dead, Machete escapes to cross the border illegally and scrape by as a day laborer in Austin. He maintains a tenuous connection to the mysterious Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who's under investigation by immigration agent Sartana (Alba).
Before long, Machete finds himself tangled up in political intrigue, as Booth (Fahey), an aide to right-wing hatemonger Sen. John McLaughlin (De Niro), solicits Machete's help with a murderous task. Things go awry, as often happens, and soon, Machete is laying waste to his enemies in unique fashion.
Some may be surprised by Machete's incorporation of politics, although a strident political point of view isn't unusual in the exploitation genre. It's not hard to discern where Rodriguez and his co-director Ethan Maniquis come down on the illegal immigration issue, although in an effort to drive home their point, the directors come off as nagging. The narrative also becomes bogged down, late in the film, by political intrigue; at that point, viewers will be impatiently awaiting the spectacular "race war" showdown.
Aside from the finale, the current affairs commentary doesn't get in the way of the film's kinetic set pieces. More than any other modern director, Rodriguez excels at staging visceral action sequences. And here he indulges in some of his most lurid imagery since From Dusk Till Dawn; one memorable scene involves Machete showing, shall we say, real guts, as he escapes a hospital.
Those in search of an elegant, Tarantino-style homage to rough-and-tumble cinematic fare won't find it here -- Rodriguez is only interested in updating a gritty, gory genre with pointed political commentary and modern filmmaking techniques.
Machete is hardly cerebral (unless copious brains splattered upon walls counts), but it just might be the most fun now available at the multiplex.