Review in a Hurry: Badass character actor Danny Trejo finally gets to topline an action movie courtesy of his pal Robert Rodriguez. And, to be kind, let's just say we find out why he's mostly only been a character actor to date. Still, there's enough bloodshed and babe-itude here to satisfy the voracious viewer.
The Bigger Picture: Don't get us wrong; Danny Trejo is awesome. Ever since his Machete character first debuted in more PG-rated form as the kindly, tech-savvy uncle of Rodriguez's Spy Kids, we've been wanting to see more, and the once-fake trailer at the beginning of Grindhouse looked like just the ticket. The problem is that it may have made us imagine a far better movie than Rodriguez and Trejo were capable of delivering.
The opening scene of the full-length feature, in which Machete loses everything at the hands of evil druglord Torrez (Steven Seagal, in a hilarious spray-on tan and fake Latin accent) is pitch-perfect, from the scratched-up film to the gore-gushing beheadings at the hands of Trejo and his blade. And matters proceed reasonably entertainingly from there, at least for a while, as we skip ahead three years to see Machete among a larger group of illegal day-laborers, secretly aided by taco vendor Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and hunted by border patrol agent Sartana (Jessica Alba).
When Machete is hired—under threat of death—to knock off immigration-hawk senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) by the oily Mr. Booth (Jeff Fahey), he smells a rat but goes along with it anyway, only to find himself set up in an attempt to ignite a race war. Meanwhile, Booth's daughter (Lindsay Lohan!) is causing him some trouble via—here's a shocker!—her drug habits.
Much of what ensues involves ludicrously big guns, campy performances, and some lovingly crass exploitation, so it feels a tad churlish to criticize what, by all rights, should be critic-proof.
And yet...we never learn anything much about Machete as a character (as this appears to be a wholly different continuity from the Spy Kids films he was in prior), and Trejo seems a bit adrift, inexpressive not quite in the cool, Clint Eastwood sort of way, but more like an overwhelmed, what-do-I-do-now fashion.
And it isn't entirely clear what the tone is. The scratchy film disappears after scene one, and a hilariously crude intestines gag is over-the-top and never again equaled. Potential sex scenes are faded out before Trejo has to make any move at all.
There's still a lot of fun to be had when he actually does pick up that signature blade and start chopping, but when it comes to Trejo taking the spotlight, we were hoping for more snarly, less sedate. The showdown with Seagal is a letdown, and Lohan's character arc is downright confusing. But Cheech Marin and Don Johnson are a hoot, as is Predators director Nimrod Antal in an unusual cameo.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Folks with strong opinions on the illegal immigration debate, especially those in favor of a border fence, may take offense to the movie's politics. Taking any of this too seriously, however, would be a mistake.