Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro
His name is Machete (Trejo). He's a quiet Mexican super-cop with a penchant for killer blades. He hates corruption. He fights crime. He wears leather. And the ladies find him irresistible. Sounds like great material for a short, sharp parody of 1970s exploitation cinema - which it was, back in 2007, when it popped up as a fake trailer attached to Robert Rodriguez's ultimately unsuccessful zombie parody Planet Terror. But here, expanded into an alarmingly humourless 105-minute feature dirge that's again directed by Rodriguez, Machete fails in almost every conceivable way as a piece of film entertainment. For a start, it's utterly clueless about what it wants to be. It begins with brio, with crumpled film stock and shuddering frames, revealing a tight, camp backstory about the execution of Machete's wife, and his blood feud with the über-criminal, Torrez (Steven Seagal). All this is done in deadpan, with tongues properly in cheeks, and an arch sense of the utter idiocy of unfolding events - performances are broad, lines are chewed and comedy gore spews aplenty. Within minutes, however, the narrative proper erupts, and it's all change. The weathered stock vanishes, as does the ramshackle formal style. And the film instead becomes strangely worthy and visually bland as it details the story of illegal immigration across the Mexican border, of a bigoted Texan politician called Senator McLaughlin (De Niro), and of a naïve American agent, Sartana (Alba), who tries to figure out McLaughlin's connection to the local paramilitary Von Jackson (Don Johnson) and why all narrative roads eventually lead back to Machete and the dreaded Torrez. In this, Rodriguez makes regular but seemingly lethargic nods to the exploitation era. And yet, while trying to have his conceptual cake and eat it too, he also seems more concerned with the movie's weightier themes, and duly lumbers his co-star Michelle Rodriguez (playing Luz, a friend to the immigrants) with a hideously literal speech which culminates with the lines: "The way we see it, people risked everything to get here, but the system here doesn't work. It's broken!" It doesn't help that in Trejo himself Rodriguez has found a leading man with less charisma than a burst piñata. With his tiny stocky legs, cheese-grater face and catatonic line-delivery, the claims made on behalf of Machete's babe-magnet status (including a cringeworthy scene with Lindsay Lohan) seem less like comedy and more like creeping misogyny. Ultimately, Rodriguez should have turned to the recent Black Dynamite for a lesson in 1970s exploitation parody. For that film, written by and starring Michael Jai White, had a deliciously deft touch, and affectionately revived the era without ever once drifting towards subtext or self-importance. Machete, on the other hand, is likely to be remembered as the final misfire in the grindhouse experiment that began four years ago and should never, perhaps, have left the drawing board.