If “Inception” is this summer’s smartest cinematic thrill ride, “Machete” sits at the opposite end of the spectrum.
A loud, giddy, carnal blast from one of cinema’s most relentless schlock auteurs, Robert Rodriguez’s latest is best enjoyed with your brain switched off.
Billed as a “Mexploitation” flick and doffing its sombrero to the likes of “Coffy” and “Shaft,” this over-the-top pastiche of Westerns, revenge thrillers, cultural stereotypes and softcore porn will be catnip for those who flocked to Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 cult opus, “Grindhouse.”
It was within “Grindhouse” that the world first glimpsed Rodriguez’s blood-soaked vision for “Machete,” included as one of the double feature’s fake trailers. Audiences were treated to the sight of eternally gruff character actor Danny Trejo flinging all manner of sharpened metal at villains and making time to mack on the ladies.
It was an amusing lark, albeit one with no apparent future. But Rodriguez has never been one to let a thin premise get in the way of a full-length project, so it wasn’t long before “Machete” moved from two-minute trailer to feature film.
Even more improbably, he assembled a roster of actors that sounds like a spectacular mismatch. Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan, Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba all turn up over the course of the film’s hyper-violent run time.
Yet everyone brings a loopy conviction to their roles, however anemically written.
The plot is simplicity itself, culled from decades of similarly themed films: Machete (Trejo) is a Mexican federale whose family is brutally murdered at the hands of ruthless drug lord Torrez (Seagal, sporting the worst Spanish accent ever attempted).
Although left for dead, Machete escapes to cross the border illegally and scrape by as a day laborer in Austin. He maintains a tenuous connection to the mysterious Luz (Rodriguez), who’s under investigation by immigration agent Sartana (Alba).
Before long, Machete finds himself tangled up in political intrigue, as Booth (Fahey), an aide to right-wing hatemonger Sen. John McLaughlin (De Niro), solicits Machete’s help with a murderous task.
Things go awry, as often happens, and soon Machete is on the warpath, laying waste to his enemies in unique fashion.
More than any other modern director, Rodriguez excels at staging visceral action sequences. Here he indulges in some of his most lurid imagery since “From Dusk till Dawn”; one memorable scene involves Machete showing, shall we say, real guts, as he escapes a hospital.
Those in search of an elegant, Tarantino-style homage to rough-and-tumble cinematic fare won’t find it here. Rodriguez is only interested in updating a gritty, gory genre with pointed political commentary and modern filmmaking techniques.
“Machete” is hardly cerebral (unless copious brains splattered upon walls counts), but it just might be the most fun now available at the multiplex.