There's a pleasing serendipity to the fact that Machete is being unleashed on an innocent public in the same summer that saw Inception and The Expendables, because it's the central questions posed by those earlier films that define the new one: namely, "What's the nature of reality?" and "Wait, is this a joke?" Machete is tougher to pin down than any film in recent memory, and remains elusive long after the credits roll. It's not an action movie, or at least not as action films are understood; too many of the fights rely on comic gags that would make Mel Brooks cringe, and the suspension of disbelief is so great that none of the violence has any consequence. But it's also not a comedy; there are far too few punch lines, and in fact every bit of dialogue is usually nothing more than part of a careless expositional dump meant to quickly push through a tangled web of half-cooked plots. The best way to describe it is as an intentionally bad drama meant to be enjoyed ironically as a comedy. No one is expected to take the action seriously, and no one is expected to think the jokes are any good. The entire point is to knowingly say, "Yes, it surely would be funny if someone made a movie like this and actually thought it was good, but this is intentionally bad, for reasons left undefined." Watching Machete is like nodding smugly for 100 minutes in a hall of mirrors, with nothing but fragmented glimpses of hollow satisfaction as a reward.
The film's history is as convoluted and questionable as the final product would have you expect. It began as a fake trailer attached to Grindhouse, the double-feature experiment cooked up in 2007 by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. The two halves of Grindhouse -- Rodriguez's gory Planet Terror and Tarantino's kinetic Death Proof -- were ontological mindfucks that drew their inspiration and style from the shlocky exploitation flicks of the 1970s that had so powerfully informed the two directors' works up to that point. They weren't so much send-ups as they were hypothetical films, exercises in wondering what might have happened if the directors had been alive 30 years prior. The faux trailers packaged with the films were similarly goofy, meant to be nothing more than outlandish spoofs only slightly more unbelievable than the forgotten B-pictures of the era: Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS pretty much sums it all up. The fake ad for Machete, also by Rodriguez, was ridiculously over-the-top, showing Danny Trejo as a mercenary hired to kill a senator only to find himself on the warpath after being double-crossed. It was hilarious precisely because Rodriguez seemed to be acknowledging how absurd it would be if the movie being advertised was real. He was right, of course -- the feature is absurd -- but the bigger head-scratcher is: Does he even care? The movie recycles story and footage from the faux trailer, so how much of it is intended to be real entertainment and how much is just the director laughing at a joke only he thinks is funny?
But as interesting as it is to get lost in the nature of just what exactly Rodriguez is trying to do, it's important to note what he's failed to do: make a good movie. Machete is plagued not only by a curious love for trashy films that manifests itself in flatly delivered meta-jokes, but by a general lack of skill, clarity, talent, energy, and everything you hope to see at the theater when the lights go down. The central plot involves Machete (Trejo) being hired by Booth (Jeff Fahey) to kill Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro), a congressman from Texas who wants to build a giant electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and who gets his kicks hunting illegals with a team of vigilantes led by Stillman (Don Johnson). Rodriguez is trying for political satire, but it's a tough sell when his call for immigrants' rights is intercut with, say, sex scenes designed to re-create porn from the Nixon administration.
The story itself only gets messier. Once Machete finds out he's been double-crossed, he gets help from Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who runs an underground aid network to get people across the border and find them jobs. He also leans on Santana (Jessica Alba), an immigration officer who's been trying to catch Luz in the act of transporting immigrants, and his brother (Cheech Marin), a priest who used to be just as much a killing machine as Machete. Plus there's Booth's daughter, April (Lindsay Lohan), a coke fiend who winds up getting high at the drug houses her dad is running on the side. (Her casting in such a role is either an attempt to make light of her personal troubles or a cruel joke at their expense; your guess here is as good as mine.) And let's not forget Torrez (Steven Seagal), the supervillain somehow behind it all, who killed Machete's wife and daughter a few years earlier and remains the mercenary's number one target for revenge. It's Machete's ostensible goal to clear his name, beat the bad guys, and kill them in ascending order of evil, but to pretend that the film had such focus and clarity is a kind lie. Robert Rodriguez co-wrote with cousin Alvaro and shares directing credit with Ethan Maniquis, and that division of talent shows up in the finished film, which tries to squeeze in about three plots too many. Similarly, the editing and directing are downright ugly: the action scenes don't offer any geography or excitement, and each scene is stapled to the ones before and after it with no thought to telling a tale. It's not as if that many heroes and villains were necessary for Machete to be what Rodriguez wanted it to be. The film is nothing more than a chance to excuse cheap filmmaking by claiming it's an aesthetic homage to days gone by, so it's not like Rodriguez had to trot out such a convoluted and increasingly stupid series of plot twists. Then again, he can just claim that such poor planning is a high-concept nod to grindhouse flicks, but that kind of lazy defense can be done ad infinitum, and after a certain point it just doesn't work.
Machete spends most of the film's plodding 100 minutes laying epic waste to various henchmen with an assortment of knives, taking breaks to engage in frequent bouts of lovemaking set to stereotypical porn music. He doesn't so much drive the plot as he glides through it, unaffected by his surroundings. Rodriguez wants Machete to be a mythical hero capable of inspiring those with whom he comes in contact, but he's too busy turning him into a punch line born of scorn-laced nostalgia to make him worth caring about. The film beats the same relentless tone from beginning to end, but it's not a fun one. Rodriguez doesn't want any of this taken seriously, and more than that, he laughs at the fact that movies like this ever were. He's trying to manufacture camp, disregarding the problematic truth that you can't commodify accidental weirdness, and any attempt to reverse-engineer a cult hit will never be anything but a plastic suffocation. This isn't a badly dated exploitation film with earned schlock status, just a heartless attempt to re-enact one for cheap laughs and a quick buck. Neither naïve nor passionate enough to put his soul into anything, Rodriguez instead makes a film that's cold, bitter, and worthless. When Machete finally rides off into the sunset, it's a mercy. May he journey far and never return.