Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 grindhouse riff Machete, starring Danny Trejo, is a creative misfire that takes a passable comedic sketch from Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse project and stretches it to an interminable feature length. Despite the occasional funny moment, this grindhouse spin-off is a genuine grind to sit through.
Machete (Trejo) is a retired Mexican federale living off the grid in Texas. Hired to assassinate a right-wing US senator (Robert De Niro), he instead is double-crossed as part of a false flag operation. On the run, Machete teams with an idealistic ICE agent (Jessica Alba) and a Mexican resistance leader (Michelle Rodriguez) to defeat his enemies.
Machete‘s entire raison d’être is the idea of ‘so bad it’s good’. Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis doggedly emulate low budget action cinema from the 1970s, tacking it with cheaply shot action scenes, bad dialogue, deliberately poor production values, and healthy slices of sleaze and gore. This creative aim is essentially the film’s downfall: the appeal there is in watching the genuine article comes from laughing at how unconvincing and shoddy everything is. Deliberately constructing a replica of it misunderstands the purpose entirely.
The film’s problems are compounded by not even being any good at what it is trying to do. The action feels oddly underwhelming, but at the same time the sleazy attempt at emulating the grindhouse style of sex and nudity feels crassly unpleasant. Half of the film’s cast are disastrous to watch. The likes of Steven Seagal, Lindsay Lohan, and Jessica Alba are not enjoyable to watch because they neither knowingly play their roles for laughs nor as so extravagantly bad as to be an ironic pleasure. They are, as is most of the film, simply dull. Other cast members, such as Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, and particularly Michelle Rodriguez, manage to thread the needle of playing a stereotypical character while winking at the audience that it is all in jest. They are simply wasting their time given the poor quality of the film. Robert De Niro is difficult to judge: there is an overwhelming sense of his simply ‘bunking off’, mucking about and taking an easy pay cheque. At the same time, De Niro running at 10 per cent is still better than most other American actors.
It is rather sad to see Robert Rodriguez – who made his own directorial debut making a cheap-as-chips action potboiler in El Mariachi – do such a poor job of lampooning a style of film he previously excelled at. His Mariachi trilogy was more self-aware, clever, and entertaining than anything he achieves here.
It is also a terrible shame for Danny Trejo, whose deadpan delivery is actually on point. He finally gets a film of his own in which to star, and he is let down by the entire production around him. He has forged an outstanding career in supporting roles over several decades, is regularly an audience favourite, and deserved much better than this. A sequel, Machete Kills, followed in 2013 – I cannot imagine why.