Robert Rodriguez’ Machete could use some serious cuts. Despite adopting the tone of a lean, mean exploitation flick, the film feels flabby and is burdened with too many characters and a convoluted plotline that reduces the screen-time of its Mexploitation hero. It’s particularly frustrating when what works in the movie works so damn well. The action is exciting and the jokes are hilarious. But Rodriguez runs up against the same problem he had with Once Upon a Time in Mexico when he reached for an epic and neglected the power of the angry little bloodbath at his disposal.
Ex-Federale/total badass Machete (Danny Trejo) was left for dead three years ago by drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). Now working as a day-laborer, Machete is hired by Booth (Jeff Fahey), a shadowy figure who doesn’t want gardening as much as he wants the grizzled Mexican to assassinate the bigoted senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) who is a hardliner against immigrants. Turns out that Machete is being set up and as a general rule, it’s a bad idea to fuck over someone who looks like Danny Trejo. Machete then goes out for revenge.
“You just fucked with the wrong Mexican.”
That nice streamlined plot was set up back in 2007 when Rodriguez made a fake trailer for the movie as part of Grindhouse, his genre-homage picture he co-directed with Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately, Rodriguez burdens Machete‘s feature-film adpatation with much more plot than it needs. The simple revenge story awkwardly expands into a giant conspiracy that ends up involving a brutal border-guard vigilante (Don Johnson), an underground freedom fighter (Michelle Rodriguez), an ICE agent (Jessica Alba), and even Booth’s slutty daughter (Lindsey Lohan). Machete eventually has four major villains, each with their own agenda and all cutting into Machete’s face-time and his time cutting apart faces.
That’s a shame when Rodriguez does such a great job at slicing together action scenes. He’s got great comic timing, lets the blood flow in a gory-but-not-disgusting manner, and shows off a creativity and flair that’s sorely missed as you sit through yet another conversation where one character has to stop the movie and dissect the motives of an off-screen character. When your movie is called “Machete”, your protagonist should probably be in almost every scene and move all of the action forward. While I love Jeff Fahey, he gets almost as much time on screen as Trejo. Lohan’s character could be excised completely, Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba’s characters could be combined, and De Niro should have been used sparingly and his effectiveness is diminished by featuring him so heavily. But when Machete is jamming meat thermometers into people, you forget all these problems. And then you have another scene where a character explains who they are and what they want and all of the problems come rushing back.
When Machete gets into the groove of an insane set piece, it’s everything it aspires to be and more. But a movie with a grindhouse attitude should not run at 105 minutes and Rodriguez should have hewed more to the approach he took with the tight Planet Terror than his failed, bloated epic Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Machete suffers from an overloaded cast, an over-stuffed plot, and then tacks on Rodriguez’ fumbling, half-assed comment on the immigration debate (a comment which basically boils down to, “Don’t be racist towards Mexicans.”). I wanted to love Machete and when it hits an action scene, I get that chance. But the lack of a polished script and strong pacing leaves Machete a dull blade.