Born of a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a border revenge movie that never was, Robert Rodriguez’s big-budget drive-in flick is a more convincing slice of B-movie love than his earlier Planet Terror, certainly more coherent.
Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez favorite) is the former Mexican federalé who turns into a one-man strike force after his family is massacred by a drug lord (Steven Seagal—who can’t keep his accent consistent, let alone convincing—as the pudgiest Mexican drug lord yet seen in the movies) and he’s framed for the attempted assassination of a corrupt Senator (Robert De Niro) by his drug-dealing campaign manager (Jeff Fahey). De Niro’s drawling politico plays the anti-immigration card as a racist scare campaign (he secretly funds a vigilante border patrol run by Don Johnson and uses the patrols as a target range with moving targets) as Rodriquez turns Machete into the protector of the downtrodden immigrants of Texas who fill the lowest-rung of the job market. It’s no coincidence that this hatchet-faced hero uses the tools of Mexican laborers to do most of his battling—hedge clippers, weed eaters, cooking utensils and his weapon of choice, the machete. Don’t call it political subtext, though. Rodriguez’s politics are right on the surface and about as complex as the film’s revenge plot, a kind-of populist response to the anti-immigration rhetoric from the more extreme margins of the political echo chamber. Rather, this is Rodriguez’s Latino answer to the blaxpoitation action films of the seventies, complete with Trejo as an accidental sweet sweetback sex machine, irresistible to every woman he meets without making the slightest overture to toward them.
Jessica Alba, not much of an actress but certainly one of the loveliest pieces of cinematic window dressing in the movies today, brings absolutely no credibility to the role of a tough, maverick ICE agent but she still melts the screen every time she smiles. Michelle Rodriguez provides the tough-chick grit as an immigrant rights activist who runs the underground railway of illegal border crossings and keeps them connected in a network of underclass workers ready to fight for their piece of promised land. Lindsay Lohan pokes at her own bad girl image as the Senator’s drug-addict, party girl daughter who, of course, parties with Machete (courtesy of a body double). It’s as a slipshod as any Rodriguez film, directed with more energy and momentum than care or clarity, just like a the exploitation films he so loves. Rodriguez isn’t much of a craftsman and seems to thrive on the energy of shooting down and dirty, even when he has the budget to take his time. It gives the film a shaggy sense of fun appropriate to his crudely-drawn B-movie politics and cult movie quoting, which he manages without the ingenuity or reinvention of Tarantino. Just see Lohan become the avenging nun of Ms. 45 or Rodriguez take the part of the one-eyed avenger from Thriller that Tarantino referenced in the Kill Bill movies. Where they become organic elements that shape his characters under Tarantino’s hand, Rodriguez just tosses them in as more ingredients in his southern-baked gumbo.
Rodriguez usually piles on the supplements for his home video releases but this is a pretty slim release on both DVD and Blu-ray. The extras are limited to 10 minutes of deleted scenes (worth checking to see an entire excised subplot involving Jessica Alba’s alcoholic slut of a twin sister and a couple of scenes with Rose McGowan as a sexy assassin in a page cut) and an utterly unnecessary and completely distracting audience reaction audio track. It’s not like this an audience participation cult film, whatever Rodriguez imagines.
Is this film by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, chronicling the online romance of Ariel’s photographer brother Nev, a genuine documentary, a piece of staged non-fiction or a cagey piece of fiction? It’s a fair question—some of the twists in this film seem too convenient (and too perfectly staged) to be captured in the fly—but the story it tells of virtual lives and fantasy fulfillment in a constructed identity played out over social networks like a role-playing game with real people and real communication tools is touching nonetheless.
It could be the flip side to The Social Network by way of a Lifetime movie, but with the wrong attitude. There’s something condescending in the way the Schulmans follow through on this, a sense of superiority and smarminess as they wrack up more evidence of the lies from Nev’s online romance and then prepare to confront her like muckraking journalists looking for the knock-out punch in their investigative piece. What they find isn’t criminal, merely sad and human. Even if it isn’t true. The only supplement is a 25-minute video Q&A with the filmmakers, mostly dominated by Nev Schulman discussing his experience, but they do address the question on everyone’s mind: “Is it true?… Is this a real documentary?” They stand firm by their film: “What you see is actually what happened.” I’m still dubious, but as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. It’s just not always that narratively neat.