By Rebecca Rose

In 1992 my best buddy Doug and I took in a movie at our local art house cinema from an all but unknown filmmaker.   This was one of the first in a wave of new films from a new breed of filmmakers that emerged in the early 1990s; one that earned the moniker “independent”.  They worked outside of Hollywood…truly outside; they weren’t making $100 million films financed by today’s so-called “independent” studios (how the hell can there even be such a thing??)  They were guys who maxed out their MasterCards, mortgage their houses, stole their ex-wives’ jewelry…whatever it took. They were true mercenaries, working outside the laws of Hollywood, a no-man’s land of.  Names like Kevin Smith, Ed Burns, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and of course, Robert Rodriguez.

That film we saw in 1992 was Rodriguez’s legendary El Mariachi.  It was a neurotic vision of cinematic chaos; a hyper love letter to the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the 70s. It all but re-invented the way filmmakers thought of cinematography and editing.  And of course, it made the young auteur an instant Hollywood star. In Machete, co-directed by Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis we see the evolution of that filmmaker.  And lo, how the mighty have fallen.

No, I’m not going to decry the violence, gratuitous nudity and sex.  (Who doesn’t want to see Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan naked?? WITH GUNS??)  But for a filmmaker who amped up an entire generation of filmmakers and redefined low-budget cinema, you’d think he’d at least bother to write a story.

The story Rodriguez feebly attempts to tell is centered around a lone wolf Mexican Federale Agent named “Machete”, played by gargantuan talent Danny Trejo. (Cinephiles will remember a trailer for the film Machete featured in the Grindhouse films)   Machete is betrayed, double crossed, and left for dead. Worse, it’s all at the hands of a very fat Steven Segal. Years later, he emerges, working day labor jobs in a small Texas border town, on the radar of two women, Jessica Alba’s kick-ass ICE agent and Michelle Rodriguez’s sexy underground fighter.  Soon, Machete is approached by an impossibly bearded Jeff Fahey, who wants him to perform a hit on Robert DeNiro’s outspoken, racist-y senator who’s campaigning to build the Mother of All Electric Fences on the border. The job seems tailor made for Machete, until he’s double crossed yet again, setting him off on his path for revenge. Yes, it’s heavy-handed in the politics, but that’s actually the part that’s most enjoyable.

I’m not saying Machete doesn’t have potential.  It does. Loads of it.  If Kill Bill was Tarantino’s magnum opus, his Symphony #9: Ode to Joy, then by all accounts, Machete should be Rodriguez’s Marriage of Figaro.  Much like Tarantino’s pair of films about The Bride, Machete is a gory, knock-em down, shoot-em-up blood fest, a violence-for-violence sake bloodbath, deliberately designed to simultaneously pay homage to the past and break new ground. Certainly this is an homage, or at least an attempt at one; a gristly throwback to the classic B films of the 70s.  And there’s nothing wrong with dabbling in homage; Rodriguez and Tarantino have deftly handled this material before.

But unlike Tarantino, Rodriguez’s work lacks any depth of storytelling. What made those scenes with Uma Thurman willfully slicing off limbs were the quiet moments within the rich narrative, all of which made  the payoff so huge in the end.  Kill Bill is ultimately a love story; albeit one in the form of a classic vengeance flick. In the end, when all the killing is done, and all the blood has been splattered, the audience is left with the same bitter satisfaction that The Bride has. That’s the best part of a revenge flick; the audience revels in the payback. But Machete offers none of that.  There’s no satisfaction in the end, because there’s no audience investment in the hero’s fate, except for what you wish the director could have bothered to give you.  The effect is like shaking up a champagne bottle only to find when you pop it that it’s gone completely flat.

And honestly, I wouldn’t even mind that the story has holes in it, or that it’s just a big schlocky, bloody fun action movie. Except that it’s not fun. It’s hard to see how you can mess up a guy who uses machetes as his weapon of choice, rappels down a building with some one’s intestine and scares off henchmen with a weed whacker; and yet, all of this sorely disappoints. I will give the film this: The first five minutes are dynamic, wild and intense. Too bad the rest of the feature never lives up. Actually, the film never lives up to the promise of its awesome trailer to begin with. (If you really want to see something fun, check out Machete’s “Message to Arizona” trailer on Trailer Spy.)

The film boasts some of the most high profile guest roles in recent memory, to no avail. It’s hard to believe Lindsay Lohan is so terrible an actress she can’t even pull off being a rich, spoiled and drugged out party girl with daddy issues, but no, she can’t. She is the thespian equivalent of a stale cheese cracker. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth and you lament where it all went wrong. DeNiro is absolutely hammy (and not in the fun way you’re thinking we critics don’t appreciate) and Steven Segal as the cartel leader is just…a mistake.  I know Rodriguez probably thinks he’s tapping into some kind of David Carradine vibe here, but no. Just. No.  Don Johnson is fun and watchable, and Cheech Marin is pure genius, as always.

The only reason to watch, love and go crazy over this film is Trejo.  Trejo is best during the quietest moments before the storm.  His facial expressions say more with a single tick than a hundred lines of dialoge. He’s just a magnificent beast to watch, period.  If there’s anything I want more in the world than a pony or a date with Johnny Depp it’s for Danny Trejo to win an Oscar, if only the right filmmaker could just tap into the right material for him. (If you really want to see Trejo at his most magnificent, just skip straight to Champion, the over-looked documentary about the actor’s amazing life and career).

Sadly, Rodriguez misses the mark.  I wanted Machete to be scream out loud amazing, a thunderous roar of action and vengeance. Instead it was more like a slow golf clap. Rodriquez’s work was once so groundbreaking, it inspired legions of copycats to flock to film school.  Now he’s just the bad student in Film Production 101, who overdoses on fake blood and gets his girlfriend to run around naked and scream a lot.  Here’s to hoping he finds his stride again, and that someone, somewhere gives Trejo the kind of meaty material he so rightly deserves.