The latest example of the genre cheekily labeled "Mexploitation" -- the best-known example of which (at least to American audiences) is Rodriguez' own "El Mariachi" -- "Machete" delivers the '70s-style B-movie goods with a relentless onslaught of over-the-top violence, extreme gore, gratuitous nudity and cheap laughs, with a healthy dose of up-to-the-minute political satire to sweeten the package. However, what was mightily entertaining in a three-minute trailer proves somewhat wearisome over the course of a feature.
Danny Trejo -- a stone-faced veteran action movie supporting player whose wide-ranging credits include everything from such movies as "Desperado" and "Con Air" to lending his voice to the "Grand Theft Auto" video games and appearing on the soap opera "The Young & the Restless" -- probably has the role of his lifetime as the title character. He's a former Mexico federale who resorts to working as a day laborer in Texas after a bust goes awry and a drug kingpin (Steven Seagal, looking like the late-career Marlon Brando) kills his wife and child.
Machete finds himself embroiled in the incendiary immigration debate when he takes an assignment to assassinate a Texas state senator (Robert De Niro, clearly relishing his cornpone accent) who has made the eradication of immigrant "parasites" his campaign platform.
Falling victim to a double cross, Machete succeeds only in wounding the target and inadvertently increasing his popularity in the polls. He thus is forced to take it on the lam while being pursued by various villains, including a corrupt businessman (Jeff Fahey) with an endless supply of henchmen and a murderous vigilante (Don Johnson, comically given an "Introducing" credit). His allies include his brother (Cheech Marin), a less-than-pious padre; the leader of an underground immigration network (Michelle Rodriguez) who works out of her taco stand; and a sympathetic Customs agent (Jessica Alba) who develops into a romantic interest.
But the convoluted plot mainly is an excuse for a relentless series of action set pieces in which Machete dispatches his opponents using any and all sharp objects available -- from surgical instruments to the fearsome titular blade (not to mention a weed-whacker battle that might prompt well-heeled Los Angeles residents to treat their gardeners a little bit better). It's all executed with the director's usual low-budget flair and finesse, and such moments as Machete performing a round-robin decapitation of several hoods at once or rappelling down the side of a building using one of his victim's intestines surely will have audiences howling with approval.
As with "Grindhouse," Rodriguez works hard to make this effort feel like a lost exploitation pic from the '70s, even taking the care to provide film scratches on the opening credits. (He also has provided a handy catchphrase for his hero, though "Machete don't text" is unlikely to replace "Make my day" anytime soon.) The ensemble cast -- ranging from an Oscar winner (De Niro) and faded action star (Seagal) to a B-movie vet (Fahey) and tabloid fodder (Lindsay Lohan, not exactly playing against type as a drugged-out, hell-raising sexpot) -- pretty much offers something for everybody.
Trejo certainly has an imposing physicality and formidable presence, but his deadpan, laconic style proves somewhat tedious in such a large dose. Judging by the audible groans from several female viewers during his passionate kiss with Alba, he's not quite convincing as a romantic lead.
Whether the film's pointed swipes at intolerance and anti-immigration forces -- Johnson's Minuteman-style figure has no compunction about shooting a pregnant Mexican woman in the stomach, and one of the major characters reaches an all-too-ironic end -- will have the desired social impact remains to be seen.
But one thing is sure, at least if we can believe the closing credits: Machete will be back, in not one but two promised sequels.
Opens: Friday, Sept. 3 (Fox)
Production: Overnight Films, Troublemaker Studios
Cast: Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis