The Kindest Cut
If I get to heaven it will be scratched and popped and overlit, with hottubs and Camaros, and Robert Rodriguez will be there taking my ticket at the rusty gates. Until then I get one long out-of-bodycount experience at “Machete,” Rodriguez’ meta-sploitation fable of an ex-Federale turned lone god of vengeance when his own faith is shattered by cops and lawmakers in bed with drug cartels and xenophobic goons on both sides of the border.
Double-crossed by the Mexican police-narcotic complex and then embroiled up North in a war between shoot-on-sight Minuteman types and a silent army of illegals with the carnage all orchestrated by not-so-shadowy Congressional demagogues, “Machete” applies the production values and basic principles of ’70s topical pulp to 2010s anti-immigrant and drug-war hysteria — the point being that cathartic shooters are no way to figure out complex conflicts, and that antique ways of seeing are still imposed on very modern problems.
“Machete” burlesques cynical issue-of-the-week fodder and fires back with proud shallowness, but as in the movies it’s modeled on, cranked straight for the commercial unconscious, some subtext is gonna slip under the fence. The movie is “about” the unstoppable forces and unintended blowback of consumerism and combat, the dispossessed-persons insurrection powered on cheap cellphones being an ultraviolent stand-in for those Asian companies that can now bootleg all the sneakers on their own since we put all our sweatshop capacity there to begin with.
It’s self-evident that the cast is a who’s-who — and who-the-hell — straight from the cheese-hipster dreamscape: action warhorse Danny Trejo in the lead; Lindsay Lohan as a killer nun-impersonator and Jessica Alba as a fed turned revolutionary (not to mention an actual Latina); Don Johnson and Robert De Niro as corrupt and crazy sheriff and senator; and grindhouse survivors from Cheech Marin to Tom Savini to Steven Seagal.
Much was automatically made of Lohan’s casting, and it does take a director of Rodriguez’ squalid vision to realize that the only option to either stay employed or, strangely, break through to art for someone as far into freefall as LiLo is not to waste time slowing the descent but to cannonball the rest of the way down. But witty insights pervade each one of his hellish charity-record-cameo choices — Seagal, making a gourmet meal of the scenery in the time-honored position of whiteguy playing brown-peril boogie man (in this case, a dialect-comic kung-fu druglord), delivers one of the flick’s many suspicious packages of social commentary in spite of itself: in a decade of dignity this slimy Scarface caricature is one of the jobs you can’t get a Mexican to take.
Of course what “Machete” is mainly about is finding the most inventive ways to get multiple heads severed simultaneously, the best excuses for nudity and the greatest amount of caption-like dialogue you can cram in for plot exposition and fake-relevance boilerplate. The drugrunner/teabagger/G-woman/wretched-of-the-earth war drags on a bit and seems to forget what it was about in the first place (now what does that remind me of?), and, just as pundits tell us we’ve entered a consumer century of personal, not political freedoms, Machete the man prevails in a lawless loner parable that offers no lasting political, just momentarily satisfying personal victories. But the urge for everyday justice and adventures that mean something, like Rodriguez’ unerring humor and entertainment instinct, is damn hard to kill.