It began as a joke, two minutes of over-the-top mayhem tacked onto the agreeably bloated “Grindhouse” double feature, a trailer touting a coming attraction that would never be coming. Yet “Machete” struck a nerve, at least in the mind of director Robert Rodriguez, and three years later the joke, stretched out to nearly two hours, has been reborn as a feature.
The movie may not turn 66-year-old Danny Trejo, a longtime supporting player who brought his bronzed biceps and ravaged look to disposable thrillers such as “Death Wish 4” and “Maniac Cop 2,” into a Bronsonesque leading man. Yet it allows him to goof on every cliché in the exploitation handbook, and he does so with a straight face, a furious growl and a closed fist.
Trejo plays the titular ex-Federale hired to knock off a slick Texas state senator (Robert De Niro) with a radical approach to discouraging illegal immigrants. (He shoots them.) Machete doesn’t pull the trigger — he doesn’t kill for cash — but finds himself framed for the botched assassination plot, inflaming the senator’s racist rhetoric and jumpstarting his re-election campaign.
What follows is a cheerfully convoluted fable featuring enough slimy power brokers and populist revolutionaries to accommodate every member of Rodriguez’s mixed-bag cast, including Jessica Alba as an INS agent with a soft spot for Mexicanos, Lindsay Lohan as the hard-partying daughter of Jeff Fahey’s scorched-earth political strategist and Steven Seagal as a ruthless drug lord.
More remarkable than the particulars of Machete’s quest for justice is Rodriguez’s touch as director — not simply the scratched prints, which give his latest the same semblance of well-worn trash that he brought to “Planet Terror,” his feature-length contribution to “Grindhouse,” but also the fake blood he splatters with such creative panache.
In the world of “Machete,” it’s not enough to stab someone when you can rip out their intestines, use them as a bungee cord and spring back to chop off a few heads. Subtlety has no place here. Rodriguez doesn’t take out the trash — he wallows in it with such exuberance that the only appropriate responses are laughter or outright disgust.
As in “Planet Terror,” Rodriguez emphasizes style over substance, but the sheer audacity of his vision — the energy, the inventiveness, the extremes to which he’s willing to take his gruesome sight gags — is his salvation. “Machete” won’t appeal to audiences with no taste for the cinematic garbage he holds dear, but to those who share his grungy sensibilities, it’s a heady shot of instant nostalgia.
Machete (3 stars)
Starring Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez
Written by Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodriguez
Directed by Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes