If Inception is this summer's smartest cinematic thrill ride, Machete sits at the opposite end of the spectrum.
A loud, giddy, carnal blast from one of cinema's most relentless schlock auteurs, Robert Rodriguez's latest is best enjoyed with your brain switched off.
Billed as a "Mexploitation" flick and doffing its sombrero to the likes of Coffy and Shaft, this over-the-top pastiche of Westerns, revenge thrillers, cultural stereotypes and soft-core porn will be catnip for those who flocked to Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's 2007 cult opus, Grindhouse.
Rodriguez's blood-soaked vision for Machete first surfaced as one of the fake trailers bridging Grindhouse's two halves, Planet Terror and Death Proof. It treated audiences to eternally gruff character actor Danny Trejo flinging all manner of sharpened metal at villains and making time to mack on the ladies. Over the top and drunk on killer taglines — Machete's most quotable line is, unfortunately, unsuitable for print — it was an amusing lark.
But Rodriguez has never let a thin premise get in the way of a full-length project, so Machete moved from two-minute trailer to feature film.
Even more improbably, Rodriguez assembled a roster of actors that seems, on paper, a spectacular mismatch: Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba all turn up over the course of Machete's hyper-violent run time.
Yet everyone brings loopy conviction to their roles, however anemically written (Robert Rodriguez and Alvano Rodriguez wrote the screenplay). Machete works, even though common sense suggests it should not.
The plot is simplicity itself, culled from decades of similarly themed films. Machete (Trejo) is, as the film opens, a Mexican federale whose family is brutally murdered at the hands of ruthless drug lord Torrez (Seagal, with the worst Spanish accent ever attempted).
Left for dead, Machete escapes to cross the border illegally and scrape by as a day laborer in Austin, Texas. He maintains a tenuous connection to mysterious Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who's under investigation by immigration agent Sartana (Alba).
Before long, Machete is tangled in political intrigue, as Booth (Fahey), an aide to right-wing hatemonger Sen. John McLaughlin (De Niro), solicits Machete's help with a murderous task. Things go awry, as often happens, and soon, Machete lays waste to his enemies.
It's not hard to discern where Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis stand on illegal immigration, although in an effort to drive home their point, they come off as nagging. The narrative also becomes bogged down late in the film by political intrigue; at that point, viewers will be impatiently awaiting the spectacular "race war" showdown.
Aside from the finale, the current affairs commentary doesn't get in the way of the film's kinetic set pieces.
Those seeking an elegant, Tarantino-style homage to rough-and-tumble cinematic fare won't find it — Rodriguez is interested only in updating a gritty, gory genre with pointed political commentary and modern filmmaking techniques.
Machete is hardly cerebral (unless copious brains splattered upon walls counts), but it just might be the most fun now available at the multiplex.