Get a load of this: Don Johnson as a Minuteman vigilante commander who shoots first, and never asks questions at all, while hunting illegal aliens crossing the Texas-Mexico border.
Listen to that: Jeff Fahey as a well-connected Austin businessman who insists the economy of the Lone Star State — hell, the economy of the entire United States — is built upon the backs of exploited undocumented workers.
And check it out: Robert De Niro (yes, that Robert De Niro) as a rabidly right-wing Texas state senator who campaigns for re-election on an offer-no-amnesty, take-no-prisoners anti-immigration platform — and occasionally joins the vigilante commander for human target practice.
Are you ready for a luridly flashy and exuberantly trashy action flick that’s certain to incense the professionally outraged at Fox News? Well, ready or not, here comes Machete, the latest attempt by Austin-based indie filmmaker Robert Rodriguez to simultaneously recycle and satirize the unhinged excesses of ‘70s exploitation movies.
Heralded three years ago with a fake trailer in Grindhouse, a similarly ‘70s-favored remix by Rodriguez and frequent partner-in-crime Quentin Tarantino, it arrived Friday at theaters and drive-ins everywhere, exploding on screens as (to shamelessly quote my own review in the showbiz trade paper Variety) a wildly uneven and aggressively overstated mash-up of testosterone-fueled melodrama, comically exaggerated violence and babe-o-licious action femmes.
But wait: There’s more.
Very much in the tradition of the ‘70s exploitation movies that inspired it — like those filmed-in-the-Philippines, women-in-prison adventures that had incarcerated cuties plotting revolution when they weren’t soaping up in the shower room — Machete comes complete with an anti-establishmentarian political subtext. No, really.
The anti-hero of the piece, Machete Cortez, played with awe-inspiring bad-assedness by craggy-faced, gravelly voiced character actor Danny Trejo, is a former Mexican Federale who fled northward after barely surviving a close encounter with Torrez (Steven Seagal), a notorious drug lord. (That Rodriguez cast a conspicuously Anglo action star as the movie’s only significant Mexican villain doubtless will be parsed for deeper meaning by those who delight in such parsing.)
Three years later, he’s lying low in Austin, trying to maintain a low profile, when he becomes ensnared in a plot to generate votes for the right-wing senator by framing a Mexican fall guy for a staged assassination attempt.
Machete – which Rodriguez co-directed with frequent editing collaborator Ethan Maniquis, and co-wrote with cousin Alvaro Rodriguez – is not a movie that places much stock in the value of subtlety.
The sensationally bloody carnage is near-surreally stylized — at one point, Machete uses a bad guy’s intestines as a rappelling rope — and the obscenely funny dialogue is brazenly, almost combatively coarse. (As Machete’s brother, an impious priest, Cheech Marin intones: “I absolve you of all your sins, now get the fuck out!”)
The panting, peek-a-boo nudity by co-stars Jessica Alba (as an ICE agent who joins forces, among other things, with Machete) and Lindsay Lohan (who plays, in a bold stroke of casting, a drugged-out, oversexed nymphet) will delight hormonally inflamed adolescent males of all ages. (As the militant leader of an underground immigrant-protection network, Michelle Rodriguez somehow manages to remain fully clothed — well, OK, almost fully clothed — without in any way diminishing her va-va-voom quotient.)
Meanwhile, Trejo manfully maintains a straight face while enjoying the running gag that Machete is irresistible to these and all other beauties who cross his path.
And yet, for all that, you can discern signs here and there that, while Rodriguez doesn’t intend for you take Machete too seriously, he’s often playing for keeps even while trolling for laughs.
The slam-bang finale has something to offend everyone while depicting a battle royale between Anglo militants revved up on their own racism and Mexican day laborers who drive up in low-riders and delivery trucks, brandishing garden tools as well as heavier artillery.
Even here, however, the xenophobic malevolence of Don Johnson’s Minuteman remains too sub-zero nasty to be dismissed as just a joke. And while Robert De Niro’s amoral politico is a live-action cartoon, it’s a surprisingly potent political cartoon: Some of his most virulent hate speech actually doesn’t sound as bad as stuff spoken by real-life figures routinely nominated by MSNBC gadfly Keith Olbermann for “Worst Person in the World.” (The senator’s name, not incidentally, is John McLaughlin — just like the former Nixon confidant and long-time TV talk show host.)
When each of these characters is force-fed just desserts — well, the cathartic response Rodriguez elicits is something more complicated than mere amusement.
Of course, the most laugh-out-loud hilarious thing about Machete may be the fact that it’s distributed by 20th Century Fox — another branch of the same corporation that provides steady employment for Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and other Fox News stalwarts. That’s the sort of mondo-bizarro twist even Robert Rodriguez wouldn’t dare make up.
A quick look at Machete: