Whether we’re conscious of it or not, part of the suspense when we a watch a violent movie comes from fear that the leading man or woman will have his or her nice face battered and go from beautiful to ugly. That’s not, refreshingly, an issue with Danny Trejo, whose face is pulped and scarred on so many levels that we’re almost curious to see what more damage could possibly do.
It was a funny idea for director Robert Rodriguez to lift Trejo out of the hulking henchman class and cast him as the title character in Machete, a virtuoso blade-wielding avenger who has hot girls jumping into bed with him. And the opening is promising. After letting us know (via whacka-whacka music and fake scratches on the print) that this is going to be another mock seventies-era exploitation picture, the director has Trejo, surrounded by thugs, swing his machete in a circle and lop off four or five heads seriatim, the whole thing viewed from above, a la Busby Berkeley. But pretty soon it’s clear that Trejo, for all his gravity, doesn’t have a lot of range, and that Rodriguez has less. The movie is ham-handed, repetitive, and rhythm-less—a mess that’s uglier than its hero and nowhere near as likable.
Rodriguez, who’s based in Austin, gets a lot of mileage out of building up the anti-immigration movement into a posse of Sheriff Joes. He introduces his chief villain, a red-meat lawman (Don Johnson channeling Joe Don Baker), by having him coolly shoot a full-term pregnant Mexican woman in the stomach. (“That baby would have been an American citizen.”) Then the politician he’s working with (Robert DeNiro!) puts a bullet in the head of the pregnant woman’s partner and smiles for a photo op. When a lawyer (Jeff Fahey) blackmails Machete into assassinating the politician, it looks for an instant as if Rodriguez has stumbled into a fertile area for satire: the hidden schism in the Republican Party between anti-immigration Goobers and business owners who depend on undocumented workers for their profit margins. But that’s a red herring. Rodriguez does political complexity about as well as he does moral complexity—which maybe wouldn’t matter if he could do violence. Seventy-five percent of Machete's action scenes, including the blow-out climax, are shambolic.
He does do violence pretty well to his actors, whom he introduces with tongue-in-cheek low-angle close-ups to make them iconic and then allows to make fools of themselves. Steven “Stay Puft” Seagal and Lindsay Lohan, who has an obvious body double in her boob shots and looks about 40 years old, come off the worst. I never thought the day would come when I wanted to watch Don Johnson more than Robert DeNiro, whom I mistook at times for Danny Aiello. As a priest, Cheech Marin gives the most dignified performance, which would have made him in the real seventies stare red-eyed at the screen with a giant spliff and murmur, “Oh, man, that is some fucked-up shit.”