Robert Rodriguez loves exploitation cinema but his homages to the disreputable genre are defined by italicized self-consciousness that leaves his humor without any room to breathe. Rodriguez's films are so busy chuckling at their own supposed audacity that there's no need for viewers to join in the revelry, a situation that muted the gung-ho lunacy of his Planet Terror and stifles almost any pleasure to be had with Machete, an aimless Mexploitation snoozer based on the writer-director's phony Grindhouse trailer.
Proving that more is often substantially less, Rodriguez's latest (co-helmed by Ethan Maniquis) recycles some footage from its short-form source material while expanding its revenge-narrative scope to concern itself with current domestic immigration issues. Stunt casting abounds for its thinly sketched peripheral players (including a comical turn by Steven Seagal as a bad guy perpetually sitting poolside with fierce Asian beauties, and a dull appearance by Don Johnson as a bigoted sheriff), as do opportunities to gawk at the skimpily clothed Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez. Yet the fact that the latter duo is eventually treated less as eye candy than as mouthpieces for the film's increasingly heartfelt, and thus decreasingly engaging, political message speaks volumes about the confusion endemic to the entire enterprise.
Years after being betrayed by his comrades, former federal agent and tattooed killing machine Machete (Danny Trejo) is hired at a Texas day laborer site by slick-haired Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate racist U.S. senator McLaughlin (a one-note, Southern-accented Robert De Niro), whose election platform involves calling Mexicans vermin and terrorists, and promoting the erection of an electrified border fence. With icy sternness, Machete accepts the gig but is then double-crossed and framed for the hit in an attempt to bolster McLaughlin's campaign by turning him into a martyr, a nefarious plot made even more evil by the senator's ties to Machete's south-of-the-border drug-lord nemesis Torrez (Seagal).
Machete's prologue involves so many over-the-top decapitations that it suggests forthcoming madness of a hilariously overboard variety. Yet once the hero winds up on the run from Booth's men as well as a sexy immigration agent (Jessica Alba) and befriends a taco stand operator (Michelle Rodriguez) who runs an illegal immigration network as the mythic She (pronounced Shay, a limp riff on Che), Rodriguez's material loses focus. Too often taking its foot off the blade-slaughter nastiness and sweaty titillation in favor of proselytizing about Southern conservatives' villainy and illegal immigrants' decency, the film mistakenly chooses to articulate its viewpoints not through gonzo scenarios, but through underlined speechifying and, as with the story's coda, labored irony.
More problematic still, Rodriguez's script (written with his cousin Álvaro) spends so much time on supporting characters—including a shotgun-loving priest (Cheech Marin) and Booth's whorish daughter (Lindsay Lohan, mistakenly thinking that going topless is, at this stage in her celebutant career, somehow interesting)—that Machete himself drops out of sight for extended stretches, taking with him his amusingly absurd stoicism and the action-packed carnage that follows in his wake. Even the gimmick that serves as Machete's reason for existing—namely, that it's meant to resemble a forgotten '70s relic—is, after stylized opening credits and first-reel scratch and burn marks, barely employed. Consequently, Rodriguez's mayhem plays out in an uncomfortable alterna-verse where wink-wink Grindhouse-style period affectations and genre allusions (such as Lohan dressing up as a nun, Ms. 45-style, for no reason) exist side by side with straight-faced, cleanly shot set pieces like Machete swinging between hospital windows via a henchman's intestines.
Unlike the infinitely more entertaining Piranha 3D, which recognized that its down-and-dirty predecessors' greatest asset was their willingness to challenge boundaries in service of tawdry eroticism and gross-out gore, Rodriguez's faux B-movie doesn't push the comedic or violent envelope nearly far enough to generate base thrills. Rather, it feigns outrageousness while too often opting to earnestly indulge in the very badass poses and sincere political sermonizing it should be delivering with tongue firmly in cheek, if not outright sending up.