In 1993, inspired by his second cousin Danny Trejo's work in Desperado, Robert Rodriguez wrote a screenplay around the character of Machete — a stringy-haired, leather-faced, ex-Federale turned down-and-dirty hitman turned violent crusader on behalf of his fellow illegal immigrants. While Trejo played a different character named Machete in Rodriguez's Spy Kids franchise, the would-be superhero that the director envisioned as a "Mexican Jean-Claude Van Damme or Charles Bronson" was M.I.A. until 2007, when Grindhouse gave Rodriguez and Trejo the opportunity to create a trailer for a Machete film that did not exist — yet.
That trailer, starring Trejo, Jeff Fahey, and Cheech Marin, set up Machete's cover as a day laborer who'd do septic clean-up for $125 a day — and kill a corrupt senator for $150k. Though the story of the would-be film was barely sketched out — in the trailer, Machete is hired by slick operative Fahey to kill an anti-immigration senator, only to be "set up, double-crossed, and left for dead" — his role as the one righteous warrior in a fight with rotten eggs on both sides was implied. "If you're gonna hire Machete to kill the bad guys," intoned the narrator at the end, as Machete mounted a motorbike for a final fight, "you better make damn sure the bad guy isn't you!"
Machete the movie stretches the trailer's narrative to 105 minutes, with Rodriguez and codirector Ethan Maniquis filling the extra space with PG-13 suggestions of sex, social satire (things you should know going in: Mexicans like hydraulics in their cars, and white people assume all Mexicans are janitors or gardeners), and star power. Robert De Niro takes over the role of the hate-spewing senator; Jessica Alba suits up in skin-tight jeans, stilettos, and '80s-era body wave to play an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer — and Machete's love interest; Michelle Rodriguez is robo-babe revolutionary She (think Che, in a leather bikini) hiding in a food truck, from which she "sells tacos to the workers of the world, [filling] their bellies with something other than hate." On the wink-wink stunt casting side, Steven Seagal and Don Johnson are trotted out as a drug lord and Minuteman-style border vigilante, with both vamping as if these roles are their last (cough). Lindsay Lohan appears as a drug-addicted webcam slut who claims her bad behavior is just an effort to give her fans what they want (double cough). Trejo, in his first starring role, gets caught in the cross-fire of all this genuine charisma and career rehabilitation. The script doesn't ask him to do much but fight, caveman-grunt ("Machete don't text"), and make out with every female onscreen.
The fake Machete trailer was a highlight of the original Grindhouse, both more cohesive and more viscerally satisfying than Rodriguez's feature-length contribution, Planet Terror. The Machete movie is made with a laziness that's so overt it seems to be part of the joke, to the point where certain shots are straight recycled from the trailer, including an orgy scene in a pool featuring an uncredited blonde playing the character played by Lohan in other scenes.
The trailer may be the ideal format for Rodriguez, allowing him to play to his strengths (character conceptualization, one-liners, DIY ingenuity, quick cutting to hide frayed edges), and avoid the things he's less good at (character development, non-winking dialogue, action sequence clarity, extended plot). Machete finds its sweet spot in sketches embedded within the larger narrative, complementing the story while almost digressing from it: the senator's over-the-top-campaign commercials, in which images of illegal immigrants are juxtaposed with close-ups of scuttling roaches; a local TV ad for "1-800-Hitman." Working in miniature, Rodriguez efficiently delivers social commentary via slapstick, and elevates the goofy-gritty ethos of the exploitation films at which he's nodding to the bombast level of a blockbuster.
But Rodriguez, whose films regularly show an indifference to linear logic once their action climaxes click into place, has trouble sustaining the kick and clarity of the asides. Because there's no real character drama or consistent critique grounding the spoof, when Machete isn't laugh-out-loud funny, it's deadly boring. The best that can be said about it is that its makers are self-aware about its superficiality, and even nod to it in an exchange between Alba and Trejo in the final scene. "You can be a real person," she says. His response: "Why would I want to be a real person, when I'm already a myth?"