by Richard von Busack
Cinema is a study of contrasts. Take the face of Danny Trejo, star of Machete. If you don’t have a picture of him, you can easily make a model by acquiring some distressed brown leather, peppering it with birdshot, and wrapping it around the steel prow of a Bobcat-sized bulldozer. Take this face, and place it next to the the bare, cosseted backside of a starlet he’s rescuing in a fireman-cary, out of a burning garage…and that’s all you need to know of the play of light on varied surfaces.
I don’t want to overpraise Machete…sure I do. Visually, it’s like a two hour long explosion in a ketchup factory. Yet there’s effervescence in Robert Rodriguez’s use of Trejo: the solemn catalyst for a fevered tale of urban rebellion and human rights. At least, Trejo is the second coming of Warren Oates (though the crazy scenario of Machete is more like baroque-era Charles Bronson).
Machete is a Mexican federale, betrayed, widowed and exiled, and trying to make a new living as a day laborer in Austin. He’s noticed by two women. One is Michelle Rodriguez: taco-truck proprietor by day…by night, revolutionary hero “Shé”, the long-awaited female incarnation of Ché. (It’s pronounced “she” for some reason.)
Meanwhile, a Latina ICE agent (Jessica Alba) also starts tracking Machete; the idea is that the massively rough-looking Trejo is irresistible to all women. Our hero is hired by a villainous politico called Booth (Jeff “The Hisser” Fahey) to put a hit on a state senator (Robert De Niro) known for his racist rhetoric. It’s a set up, a Reichstag burning party. In the mix, there’s also a Minutemen like group, who like to shoot illegals crossing the border. We see them plug a pregnant woman to take out an unborn “anchor baby.” “If’n it’s born here, it’s gonna be a citizen,” is a resounding exploitation movie line; note also the Glen Beck lookalike in the hunting party. With affecting reluctance, Machete takes up his weapon against these and other racists.
The downside of Machete is the problem of any over-crowded party, the feeling that one doesn’t get enough quality time with people you came to see: Lindsay Lohan as Booth’s degenerate daughter; Daryl Sabara, as wannabe cholo, and the one and only Cheech Marin as an armed and ludicrous padre.
You’ll hear people say De Niro was squandered. If you really want to see him squandered, rent a Fokkers movie. De Niro is doing what his idol Brando would do—certainly Brando would have bestirred himself to play a weasely southern state senator if he agreed with the movie’s politics.
After a summer of rhetorical viciousness and discriminatory lawmaking, Rodriguez’s counterblast—wrapped up as a movie that really slops the gore-hogs—has unimpeachable relevance. It’s weirdly cheerful, absolutely extreme and always seriously comic. And Trejo, clearly not just a pretty face, is the weirdly calm eye of this hurricane of mayhem.