Robert Rodriguez’s Machete started out as one of several faux trailers that played between the two features of Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. The trailer advertised a then-fake “Mexploitation” flick starring Danny Trejo as a Mexican ex-federale seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and child. Constructed of context-free scenes of sex and violence, the trailer mostly worked as a joking homage to exploitation trailers, right down to its amusingly no-bullshit tagline: “They fucked with the wrong Mexican.”
But where the trailer showed both an amusement and affinity with grindhouse cinema, Machete‘s tone is one of pure mockery. Roughly following the narrative hinted at in the trailer, Machete opens as its eponymous hero is betrayed by his fellow agents and forced to watch while his wife is killed by Mexican drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). Years later, Machete, working as a day laborer in Texas, is recruited by the clearly untrustworthy Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate state senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), running for reelection on a racist campaign to eject the Mexican “vermin” from the state, even if that means killing them himself. Booth’s explanation for the hit is that McLaughlin’s politics would be disastrous for Texas businesses, but it’s no surprise that his real motivations turn out to be to frame Machete for an attempted assassination designed to boost McLaughlin’s flagging poll numbers. Double-crossed once again, Machete must take on McLaughlin and, of course, eventually Torrez, aided along the way by a trans-national collective of pro-immigrant militants.
Machete is an echo chamber, so entertained by itself it never seems all that concerned with entertaining anyone else. There’s not one genuine frame in the film, just self-satisfied, pomo winking. Seemingly more interested in ridicule than homage, Rodriguez buries everything transgressive and prurient about grindhouse under layer after layer of obvious, calculated irony. It isn’t funny the first time the appearance of a naked woman is scored to cheesy ‘70s-porn bass-slapping; by the fifth, it’s almost painful. That’s how lame Machete is as exploitation: It makes you wish the actresses would keep their clothes on.
If there’s one thing worth treasuring in Machete, it’s Trejo. A longtime character actor with a face chipped from sand-blasted granite, Trejo is less performer than presence, and no matter how insufferably glib the movie around him gets, he never seems in on the joke. He’s an action-movie badass for the ages, yet Rodriguez and Maniquis undercut him at every turn. If I were them, I’d watch out: They fucked with the wrong Mexican.
The image is faithful to Robert Rodriguez's visuals, which were digitally faded and scratched to mimic a badly worn grindhouse print, though there's a tension between that intent and Blu-ray's high resolution. Machete looks great, but I'm not sure it's supposed to. Audio, on the other hand, is suitably loud and unsubtle; it's far from an example of artful sound design, but it gets the job done.
Machete goes even farther up its own ass with the audience-reaction track, which augments the movie with audio of a purportedly real-life audience cheering, hooting, and laughing along, presumably to make sure at-home viewers really absorb how fucking awesome it is. The disc also includes 10 mercifully excised deleted scenes, and two theatrical trailers, though not, for some reason, the original trailer from Grindhouse.
Robert Rodriguez loves grindhouse cinema, but you'd never know it from Machete, which seems more interested in mockery than homage.