It’s fitting that Machete originated as a trailer, albeit a fake one, attached to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s ’70s-exploitation-movie homage Grindhouse. Trailers routinely assemble the most exciting parts of a movie into a two-minute punch, and in trailer form, the spectacularly violent adventures of a Mexican vigilante, driven home by subterranean-deep narration, certainly looked like one hell of an awesome movie. But a trailer isn’t a film, and in producing the feature-length version of Machete, Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis haven’t made the necessary adjustments. They try to make Machete into an extended trailer that’s all best parts, stitched together by a sloppy, needlessly convoluted plot and a lot of bluntly explicit messaging on the immigration issue. It’s often stylish and exciting, but the pile-up of cool kills, hot bodies, and other unprocessed bits of juvenilia doesn’t add up to a good time.
Rodriguez and Maniquis nearly empty their chamber in the opening sequence, which finds Danny Trejo’s “Machete,” a renegade Mexican Federale, ignoring orders and charging headlong into a mission to rescue a woman abducted by a powerful drug cartel fronted by Steven Seagal. Using his signature blade, Trejo slices and dices his way through scores of Seagal’s henchmen, even while carrying the woman’s (spectacular, naked) body over his shoulder. He survives the ultimately botched operation, but loses his job, winding up as an undocumented day laborer in a Texas border town. A stranger (Jeff Fahey) recruits Trejo to execute a covert hit, roping him into an elaborate plot to goose the election chances of a virulently anti-immigrant state senator (Robert De Niro). But a double-cross leads Trejo to fight the bloody good fight on behalf of his fellow illegals, aided by a taco-truck owner (Michelle Rodriguez) with connections to a border-crossing network.
To this bustling ensemble, Rodriguez adds Jessica Alba as a sympathetic immigration and customs agent, Lindsay Lohan as Fahey’s sex-kitten daughter, and Don Johnson as the leader of a cadre of border-guarding militiamen. Some of the stunt casting pays off—Johnson and Seagal clearly relish the chance to play heavies—but like most of Machete, it feels like fan service at the expense of everything else. What’s lost is a golden opportunity to turn Trejo’s Machete into a genuine icon, a hero to undocumented (and documented) Mexicans at a time when they’re under increased scrutiny. There’s enough good material here for a kick-ass trailer, though.