Robert Rodriguez’ long-gestating 2010 Danny Trejo action vehicle Machete started with low ambitions but somehow turned into a major theatrical release with a supporting cast of Hollywood stars. Rodriguez has had the idea for this film ever since meeting Trejo on the set of Desperado, when, struck by his appearance, Rodriguez envisioned a series of low-budget action flicks starring Trejo as a kind of Mexican Chow Yun-Fat. Even with a script ready, this idea fell to the wayside while Rodriguez pursued other projects. But he revived it when he collaborated with his fellow trash cinema enthusiast Quentin Tarantino on the exploitation throwback double feature Grindhouse. While Planet Terror became the feature, Rodriguez filmed footage for Machete to create one of the film’s fake trailers. Planet Terror was fun, but a lot of fans like myself left the film wanting Rodriguez to expand the Machete trailer into a feature. The following year, he announced he would expand Machete into a full-length film as a special feature for the Grindhouse DVD. Thankfully, the film we got was a much larger affair, even with its modest $10 million budget.
The plot gets ex-Federale Machete involved in an assassination plot against racist Texas Senator John McLaughlin, played by Robert De Niro. The assassination, as it turns out, was a setup by businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to boostMcLaughlin’s low polling numbers in the upcoming election. Booth is involved with Rogelio Torrez, a drug lord and Machete’s former partner, played by Steven Seagal in a surprisingly convincing performance. Machete’s face winds up on the news, and the rest of the film involves him being pursued by the authorities, hiding out with his brother Padre Benicio Del Toro (Cheech Marin), assisting both taco truck revolutionary Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and ICE officer Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba), having pool sex with Booth’s wife and daughter, and finally leading a massive Mexican shootout with Von Jackson (Don Johnson) and his mini army of Minutemen-style terrorists.
Machete has the grainy low-budget feel of Planet Terror and works as the only sequel to Grindhouse we’re ever likely to get. The action is appropriately over the top, including multiple head slicings and even a scene of Machete swinging between buildings from a man’s intestines. It’s gory, exploitative trash that’s a blast to watch, and that makes it all the more jarring when an actor of De Niro’s caliber pops up to murder Mexican immigrants. For me, the biggest thrill is seeing a Hollywood action film that is 100% on the side of immigrants, with bigots and border-protecting vigilantes as the unlikable villains getting chopped, shot, and humiliated one after the other. It’s a bit difficult for me to be objective about it as the son of a Mexican immigrant. I rarely get to see something like this released by major studios, so when I do, I’m more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt. Thankfully, it’s a blast and hits all of my sweet spots as someone raised on Troma and VHS big-box horror fare.
Machete is a cathartic experience for any viewer of Latinx descent in light of the toxic anti-Latinx environment we’re currently living in. With a Trump presidency that emboldened bigots to wear their racism as a badge of pride, it’s hard to overstate how gratifying it is seeing a short, Mexican action star machine gun these fools into oblivion. It’s a decade old, but the fact that it’s become only more relevant in the ensuing years is a testament to how little things have changed.