“There’s an interesting face,” Jessica Alba says upon her first glimpse of Danny Trejo in Machete. It’s an observation that’s surely followed Trejo around his whole life. The beloved ex-con, boxer and character actor is 66 now and has been in well over 100 movies, yet, if we don’t count Champion, the documentary about Trejo’s life, Machete marks his debut as a lead. Trejo’s always been a welcome presence wherever he turns up, that distinctively weathered and initially frightening face that masks a terrifically deadpan sense of humour. He’s exactly the sort of perpetual background player film-lovers long to see promoted to the spotlight, yet thanks to largely half-assed conception, Trejo’s star moment as Machete’s eponymous ex-federale hero may just constitute the least interesting performance he’s given.
Written by Robert Rodriguez and his cousin Álvaro, and directed by Rodriguez and his longtime editor Ethan Maniquis, Machete is the fitfully entertaining extrapolation of a trailer featured in Grindhouse, the exploitation homage collaboration between Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Predictably, Machete plays like a convoy of trailers, united by a plot crammed with corrupt Texan politicians and underground revolutionaries that’s more busy than it is cohesive or even coherent. The lack of narrative elegance is of course part of the movie’s ostensible charm, but what starts out as prankish plot holes and playful implausibilities increasingly feels like lazy screenwriting. What resembles button-pushing political commentary rapidly reveals itself to be flamboyantly irrelevant. Rodriquez uses pastiche as an opportunity to rest on cliché. Clichés can make marvelous tools when animated, but Rodriguez frequently seems content to simply prop them up as platforms for yet another set piece.
Bereft of anything like emotions, ambitions or conflicts, Trejo is left mostly with one-liners, some of them quite deftly delivered—I especially liked “Machete don’t text.” Converted to the side of the desperate migrant workers she used to deport, Alba’s immigration cop becomes the resident cheerleader: “There’s the law, and there’s what’s right!” The rest is one-joke stunt casting: Robert De Niro’s an ultra-right wing senator; Don Johnson, in aviator shades, cowboy hat and shark fin sideburns, is a cop who slaughters Mexicans for sport; Lindsay Lohan stretches out to play a rich girl with a drug problem and a hunger for publicity; Steven Segal’s a drug lord with an absurd toupee. Cheech Marin’s a priest with a penchant for weed.
Machete’s most inspired, or at least liveliest bits arrive through a creative attitude toward the human body—a lady retrieves a telephone from her vagina. The killing is gleefully rampant and mercifully cartoonish, with fountains of digital splatter and everything that vaguely resembles a sharp object eventually impaling somebody—kudos to whoever thought of the meat thermometer. Thing is, Machete’s funniest display of violence is decidedly non-lethal, with Trejo warding off a bodyguard by slapping his wrists with a weed whacker. I suppose he could have just chopped his arm off or unspoiled his intestines like he does in so many other confrontations, but in a movie that thrives on excess it’s amazing how far a little restraint can go to win you over. When Trejo and the bodyguard finally part ways the latter is left caged to a wall with pruning shears, no doubt happy just to be alive. He never knew what hit him.