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“Machete” trashy, hammy, overacted fun

Just because Machete don't text doesn't mean he's not good with his hands.

Robert Rodriguez likes making movies with equal parts explosive violence and hot babes and one-liners, which means he is doomed to spend his career being compared to Quentin Tarantino. Not such a bad fate, eh? There are worse people to be compared to, and to the untrained eye the comparison even seems kind of valid. But here’s the key difference: Tarantino likes to write insight in his worst characters. Rodriguez just wants them to have comically bad (like Nicholas-Cage-in-“Captain-Corelli’s-Mandolin” bad) accents. 

Is there a problem with that? Not for anyone willing to sit down, 86 the Tarantino snobbery, shut up and enjoy the ride. Rodriguez believes in the beauty of B movies, with their atrocious  (but so funny!) dialogue and their ill-written parts and their liters of blood and hacked-off body parts. He doesn’t take “Machete” seriously, and neither do the actors — which is why this fleshed-out film trailer is pure trashy fun, no brain engagement required. And the merriment begins with the opening credits, when Rodriguez — that cheeky bugger — includes the line “Introducing Don Johnson.” The casting is wild. Robert De Niro? Jeff Fahey, who seemed doomed to live his days as That Guy from Those Straight-to-VHS ’80s Movies? Mr. Miami Vice and Steven Seagal and Cheech in the same film? If there’s a Cinematic Cheesiness Scale, “Machete” has to be on the buxom end of it. And Lindsay Lohan crops up for good measure, a sure cause for some hoots because she’s playing a caricature of herself but looks too dumb (or drunk) to notice.

From this sea of tomfoolery emerges — “charges like a ticked-off Brava bull” might be a better phrase — Danny Trejo as Machete. On paper, this character actor, with that craggy face and lined skin that speaks to years of hard living and hard time, sounds like an odd choice for a revolutionary. Could a 66-year-old ex-con make a viable action hero? Claro que si, bruto! Watch him level goons with his thousand-yard stare and win a street fight without ever putting down his burrito. That sneer and hardness of character come in mighty handy in “Machete”; in fact, they are exactly what the original faux trailer promised and then some. As is customary with such a hero, there’s a dark past connected to some supremely shady criminals. Druglord Torrez (Seagal with an outrageously overdone Spanish accent), whom we recognize as terribly powerful because he calls everyone “puñeta” with a smirk, lops a few limbs of Machete’s family tree. Like all stories involving heroes, this is the unspeakable tragedy that makes the man. Years later Machete, an ex-federale, struggles to find enough money to scrape by. He gets the chance when Texas businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) offers him $150,000 to kill Sen. McLaughlin (De Niro), a complete waste of oxygen posing as a political candidate taking an unbelievably hard line against illegal immigrants. The job isn’t this simple, naturally, and Machete gets tangled up with slinky U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) and Luz/Shé (Michelle Rodriguez, looking refreshingly not drunk), the hardbody leader of an Underground Railroad-type operation to help Mexicans cross the border.

Down and down this rabbithole of a plot goes, eventually winding around to include a truly sadistic Border Patrol vigilante named Von (Johnson), who’ll shoot a pregnant immigrant without a second’s hesitation, and Machete’s brother Padre (Cheech Marin), a priest who always keeps a blunt, a flask and a semi-automatic weapon handy. (Time, you’ll discover, has not slowed Cheech’s comic timing: “I absolve you of all your sins. Now get the fuck out!”) It’s like a “Nash Bridges” reunion more nudity, some porn music and a kickass showdown involving tricked-out, hydraulics-happy cars, murderous rage and someone shouting a line that will put “remember the Alamo” six feet under: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” There are high highs and low lows — Lohan has the acting skills of a dead person; Fahey is like a less adept Eric Roberts — with Rodriguez’s shortcomings, like character development, on obvious display. He’s great at trailers and feature-length ham. With Trejo making like a true-blue action hero and De Niro doing his best Foghorn Leghorn impression, who cares? 

Grade: B+