From the box-office wreckage of a costly 2007 misfire comes an unlikely spinoff: Machete (20th Century Fox; 105 minutes; R; 2010), a wild-and-woolly exploitation entry that expands upon the faux trailer that director Robert Rodriguez devised for Grindhouse, the expensive double-bill/drive-in homage from Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.
While lesser ideas have received Hollywood green lights in the past (who’da thunk that the cavemen from the Geico TV commercials would get their own ABC-TV series?), Rodriguez’s tongue-in-cheek coming attraction was so fully formed in terms of plot and good guy-bad guy confrontations that an actual feature film seemed redundant. Yet somehow Rodriguez has fleshed out his three-minute preview into a rollicking showcase of high energy, body counts and even some political commentary.
Machete, played by granite-kissered non-actor Danny Trejos, is an ex-Mexican federal agent who gets coerced by sleazy businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate the equally crooked Texas Sen. John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro, slumming in a hambone role), who is riding a wave of anti-immigration sentiment. Of course, the gunplay goes awry and Machete has been set up by Booth to take the fall, forcing him to go on the lam. Other forces at work include the corpulent drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal), a good-ol-boy bad ass humorously named Von Jackson (“introducing” Don Johnson, according to the opening credits), rebel leader and taco-truck entrepreneur She (Michelle Rodriguez, no relation to the director) and pretty customs agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba).
Back to Grindhouse, which was a noble attempt to replicate the era of fleabag downtown bijous reduced to running movie potboilers in the 1970s. Rodriguez did the zombie flick Planet Terror, while Tarantino contributed the car-crash opus Death Proof, both presented in deliberately scratchy, 80-minute cutdowns with scenes missing and motivations left unexplained.
Grindhouse’s biggest obstacle was that it cost a reported $67 million and earned only $25 million at the box office, as both moviemakers apparently forgot the churn-em-out-cheap ethics of drive-in schlockmeisters like Roger Corman. And whereas Rodriguez at least had campy fun with his zombie spoof, Tarantino’s offering (and this is a minority opinion) was a pretentious, talky affair that would have bored real grindhouse patrons to tears. (His longer cut, acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival in the hopes of critical rehab, only magnifies its central problems.)
Rodriguez learned his lesson, although he’s always shot his flicks on low budgets: The $10 million that financed Machete helped it earn a profit, as it squeaked out $26 million at the domestic box office, with an additional $17 million in foreign rentals. Yet he infuses his work with a playful B-movie sensibility where literally anything can happen. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s a scene in which Machete uses a man’s entrails to leap Zorro-like out of a hospital window during one escape. Oh yeah, Lindsay Lohan also drops by, at one point wearing a nun’s habit, in a performance that could be construed as a parody of Meghan McCain.
Other Rodriguez regulars turn up in supporting roles, including the all-purpose scene-stealer Cheech Marin plus Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara. And while Trejo brings his usual muscular impassiveness to his first leading role (“Machete don’t text,” he deadpans), it’s a good thing this movie is front-loaded with amusing casting calls, with De Niro channeling a Texas twang for his Lyndon Johnson-meets-Pat Buchanan riff.
When all the explosions, gun blasts, beheadings and other bloodied body parts have finally subsided, this fast-moving slaughterhouse movie climaxes with the threat that sequels titled Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again are on the way. At last, a movie franchise that will both promise and deliver the gory goods.
The DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment offers Machete in a 1.85:1 letterboxed ratio. There’s no commentary track, but you can watch the movie with an audience-reaction track option that imitates the grindhouse feeling; this gimmick was also used on Rodriguez’s deluxe DVD edition for Sin City. About six minutes of deleted scenes are also offered. The two-disc Blu-Ray set features a digital copy disc, plus a few more deleted scenes.