Say what you will about Robert Rodriguez, but you certainly can’t accuse him of being lazy. In the 18 years since his breakout film, El Mariachi, by my count he’s directed or co-directed 14 features. Sure, they are of varying quality (most of the time he doesn’t seem to worry too much about whether the special effects are finished), but he certainly keeps on churning out his own brand of excessive, over the top action.

Machete is based on the trailer of the same name that appeared in the middle of the Grindhouse double feature in the US. (For much of the rest of the world, we actually missed out, having Death Proof and Planet Terror split up, and the latter getting a straight-to-DVD release here in Australia.)Machete It sees Rodriguez regular, Danny Treju, in the leading role as a former policeman who basically goes on a killing rampage after he is framed for an assassination attempt.

The film has the same grindhouse/exploitation feel to it, and this means that the not so subtle subtext is even more pronounced. You see, many of the bad guys in Machete are gun-toting Texans who can’t stand to see ‘illegal immigrants’ pouring over the border, and consider it their duty to shoot and kill any they happen to catch in the act. Whilst neither as endearing nor subtle as the ‘Mexican pride’ subtext of the original Spy Kids (or indeed, the more cerebral route taken by Monsters), this over the top, farcical approach to a very serious issue works quite well. As I see it, Rodriguez has taken the exploitation flick – a genre known for its offensive representation of racial, ethnic and gender minorities – and turned the tables, instead presenting a gauche and insensitive portrayal of the mainstream. It’s a bold and clever move, and really is the only thing that sets a film like this apart from some of his earlier work (ie: his two sequels/remakes of El Mariachi.)

Danny Trejo, whilst a great bit player, isn’t really leading man material. The script wisely has him spending a lot of time on the bench as the huge supporting cast get their moment to shine. It’s an incredible list: Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan and Don Johnson all co-star, with Seagal’s portrayal of a Mexican crime boss possibly the most wonderfully outrageous of the lot. As with the recent Wild Target, it’s hard to believe that the likes of Sartana Rivera (Alba) would be interested in the likes of Machete, but I guess we have to simply switch our brains off for moments like that.

Filled with garish credits and a wacky soundtrack that regularly veers into kung fu sound effects and 70s porno bass riffs, Machete clearly wants to let you in on the joke. The film doesn’t feature any of the deliberate mistakes that popped up in the Grindhouse movies, however.

The action is passable, though none of it looks real. As with much of Rodriguez’s work, shortcuts are visible all over the place – a CGI blood splatter here, a lazy CGI explosion there. It’s all rather at odds with the deliberate old-school storytelling – once upon a time, true low budget films required ingenuity to create the desired practical effects. Here, Rodriguez must have faced an interesting dilemma. He opts to use low-grade CGI, but perhaps he could have in fact used the CGI recreate crappy practical effects.

In terms of silliness, the more extreme action scenes in Machete work well. The film is intermittently funny and generally entertaining, though perhaps doesn’t need to be seen on the big screen. The problem with deliberately setting out to make a B-grade film is that you end up with… a B-grade film.

Rating: 3.0 stars
Review by Stuart Wilson, 1st December 2010
Hoopla Factor: 2.5 stars

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