Silver Screen: Machete **

Silver Screen: Machete  **
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Silver Screen: Machete **
Bryan Miller

Writer and director Robert Rodriguez adapts his hilarious two-minute fake trailer from Grindhouse into an intermittently funny, nearly two-hour-long real movie, and it kind of kills the fun.

The fake trailers were arguably the best part of the full Grindhouse experience (although both feature films were solid), but it was their brevity that made them sing. It was a hoot to watch the patchwork scenes of a Machete movie that didn't exist and mentally fill in the gaps of this gritty, grainy Mexican reimagination of Shaft. At a certain point, though, Rodriguez is just beating a dead caballo.

Wonderful character actor Danny Trejo gets a star turn as an ex-Federale whose wife and child are killed by a pan-ethnic drug lord named Torrez, played by Steven Seagal. (The name would suggest, obviously, that Torrez is Mexican, but Seagal's weird fake tan makes him look more like a Snookie than a Sanchez, and his intermittent accent never even comes close to sounding south-of-the-border. Also, he carries a samurai sword. Discuss.)

Machete survives a would-be killing and hops the border to live a quiet life, only to be drawn back into murder and mayhem when shady businessman Booth (Jeff Fahey) hires him to kill a state senator (Robert De Niro) who's conspiring with vigilante border guards to build an electrified fence between Texas and Mexico.

Once involved, Machete is pulled into a convoluted world of politics, crime, and conspiracy, with a shadow war being fought between anti-immigrant forces within the U.S. government and a secret network (conveniently called the Network) of Mexican resistance fighters led by an undercover lunch-truck matron codenamed She (Michelle Rodriguez).

The plot is surprisingly complicated, and despite the movie's prioritization of shootouts, tit shots, and bloody crimefighting, Rodriguez (along with cousin and cowriter Á lvaro Rodriguez and codirector Ethan Maniquis) has a real agenda here. Both for better and worse, Machete is, like its B-movie forefathers, a brash socio-politico screed couched in cheap thrills. It's a call to arms for Mexican unity, and also a stark repudiation of the growing anti-immigrant fervor seething in the Southern states.

That works best when Rodriguez is playing defense, ridiculing opportunistic politicians who use immigration as a wedge issue to further their careers, not to mention the overzealous Minutemen types who are here depicted as gun-crazy rednecks eager to shoot some brown folk. While most everything else in the movie is high-pitched to the point of hysteria, here it's not too far off. The rest of the movie's politics, though, are muddled to the point of stupidity. (By reversing his logic, Rodriguez would seem to be advocating for a completely open border. How do you say "bad idea" in Spanish?)

There are flashes of real cleverness spread throughout the film. For all his faults, Rodriguez has never lacked zany ideas and enthusiasm. Thus viewers get the state senator's hilarious, barely parodic campaign commercials, with loud echoes of Jan Brewer's craziness, or the brutal slapstick ballet in which Machete dispatches a group of suit-clad white henchmen using nothing but gardening tools.

But the jokes start to grow as tiresome as the endless succession of Peckinpah-inspired blood fountains. They're spread increasingly thin among a rambling multiplicity of subplots that often does no more than provide some stunt casting (Don Johnson as a murderous Minuteman-type, Lindsay Lohan as a coddled super-slut driven to a drastic about-face) and protract what would have worked best as a short and sweet bit of nastiness. Although, as stunt casting goes, Cheech Marin as a vengeful, Cohiba-smoking priest is pretty entertaining.

Rodriguez admirably strains to make Machete more of a real movie than an internet meme, but all the straining shows.