Machete (review)

Class Warrior

Remember that crazy funny fake trailer for the nonexistent 70s Mexploitation flick Machete that preceded the Planet Terror segment of Grindhouse a few years back? Gonzo indie filmmaker Robert Rodriguez whipped up that two-and-a-half-minute bit of ultraviolent fluff, and then he kept whipping, and now it’s a two-hour, crazy-funny-violent Mexploitation feature that couldn’t be more terrifyingly timely. I can’t wait for the right-wing windbags to begin decrying Rodriguez and Machete — oh noes! he’s trying to ignite a class war! As if class warfare hasn’t been the status quo, coming from the other direction, for decades.

Oh yes, there is revolutionary rage in Machete, and Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly and the “we’re not racist, honestly” Tea Partiers are right to be afraid that this not-so-silly silly movie may touch a nerve among audiences. And not just among Hispanic moviegoers, either. Yeah, it’s delightful to see so many Hispanic faces onscreen here — I can’t remember the last mainstream movie that featured so many Latinos in all the major good-guy roles, including not one but, miraculously, two women! — but the crafty point is also made that plenty of folks whom Arizona cops wouldn’t be moved to demand papers of are also pissed off about the anti-immigrant, close-the-borders hysteria currently gripping the U.S. Rodriguez — a Mexican-American who lives and works in Austin and surely has been confronting this bullshit all his life — has smartly made a movie that welcomes anyone angered by injustice and a lack of compassion without having to sacrifice the lovely nonwhite cast of his, you know, cast.

Well, except: the bad guys are all white (which will surely give Glenn Beck something else to howl about, because bad guys are never white, doncha know). Even the Mexican bad guy, a notorious and psychopathic druglord called Torrez, who is hilariously played by hilarious white boy Steven Seagal, displaying more of a sense of humor about himself than I had ever imagined he possessed. But the class warfare, as depicted by Rodriguez (Shorts, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D) as cordirector — with longtime collaborator (in editing and FX) Ethan Maniquis — and coscreenwriter — with Álvaro Rodríguez — isn’t about race or borders, or even about legality: it’s about power and money and heartlessness versus poverty and desperation and humanity.

So here we have former Mexican federale Machete (Danny Trejo: Predators, Battle for Terra), who ran north of the border to escape Torrez’s wrath after the cop dared to try to take the druglord down… and after Torrez killed Machete’s family. Texas is a place where good ol’ boy Stillman (Don Johnson: When in Rome), who fancies himself a lieutenant in a vigilante border-protection scheme, and state senate candidate McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro [Everybody’s Fine, Righteous Kill], his Texas accent coming and going, as befits the craven carpetbagger opportunist he is) pick off pregnant Mexican women sneaking into Texas in the middle of the night: gots to stop those anchor babies from being born. McLaughlin is running on an “immigrants are cockroaches” platform, but a mysterious white businessman, Booth (Jeff Fahey: Planet Terror) needs to ensure that McLaughlin doesn’t win, because Texas thrives on illegal labor and that can’t change.

Whew. Politicians, businessmen, druglords: they’re all the same greedy slime here. Furtively fighting them are Luz (Michelle Rodriguez: Avatar, Fast & Furious), who operates a taco truck that keeps day laborers in coffee and tacos, which is also a front for the Network, a sort of Underground Railroad helping illegals set themselves up in the U.S. And there’s Sartana (Jessica Alba: Valentine’s Day, The Love Guru), an American ICE agent who goes over to the other side. And Padr (Cheech Marin: Race to Witch Mountain, Cars), a Catholic priest who’s more of an activist of the old school than we usually think of from the Church today — there’s a refreshing nothing-sacred attitude to Machete, which is exactly the kind of eccentricity that this kind of movie demands, and gets exactly right. And there’s Machete, of course, who is hired by Booth to assassinate McLaughlin but finds himself in even deeper hot water than he anticipated.

For all the over-the-top bloodshed — Machete really enjoys using his machete, though he’s not averse to surgical blades, automatic weapons, or really anything that will kill racist, power-hungry men in a nasty way — Machete is only half tongue-in-cheek. It’s all very much in the spirit of 70s blaxploitation films, and fueled by the same anger and the same yearning for fairness and sympathy. It’s certainly one of the most humanist movies ever to feature such a high body count. Lots of folks will be interested in talking about Lindsay Lohan’s mostly naked appearance here as Booth’s drug-addicted daughter. I hope at least some of them will also see the cry for justice that Machete is.

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