Sept. 3 2010 12:00 AM

The topic may be timely, but 'Machete' is merely gruesome goofiness

A naked nymph slithers up to a stony-faced Mexican federal
Police officer and slips her hand below his waist. “What’s this long, hard
thing?” she purrs.

“My machete,” the cop growls, neither cracking a smile nor
registering the slightest sign of arousal.

Don’t get him wrong — Machete Cortez, the title character of
“Machete,” is definitely not asexual: Before his story is complete, he’ll bed
at least two — and possibly two more — lovely women. But he never lets getting
some play interfere with getting his job done.

What is his job? Dispensing plenty of rough justice to
anyone who gets in his way. If you’re foolish enough to give him a hard time,
Machete will waste no time in cutting you down to size, with a little help from
that “long, hard thing.”

AP0909170106211_370x278.jpgNobody can say they didn’t have plenty of advance warning
that Machete was on his way. Director Robert Rodriguez introduced the character
(played by 66-year-old veteran character actor Danny Trejo) in one of the fake
trailers inserted in the middle of “Grindhouse,” the proudly pulpy
two-for-the-price-of-one opus he and Quentin Tarantino unleashed in 2007. As it
turns out, the full-length “Machete” is superior to “Planet Terror,”
Rodriguez’s primary “Grindhouse” contribution; perhaps if Rodriguez had
expanded “Machete” three years ago, “Grindhouse” might have received a warmer
reception from critics and audiences.

Co-directing with Ethan Maniquis, Rodriguez uses “Machete”
as an opportunity to simultaneously salute and spoof ’70s exploitation cinema.
The first 10 minutes of the film are presented in the same intentionally sloppy
style of “Grindhouse,” complete with a dirt-speckled picture, visible lint
moving around in the frame and even a few well-placed emulsion scratches for
good measure. Although the gimmickry is set aside once the plot roars into
motion, the heavy-duty mucho-macho tone is sustained until the end credits.

Trejo’s performance consists mostly of baring his teeth,
straightening his back and slicing up whatever is in front of him. His skin
looks like sun-baked adobe, his face like 10 miles of rough road. He may not be
a conventionally buffed-up action star, but he’s not likely to be easily
forgotten, either: Rare is the man who can engage in a bare-knuckle brawl while
still managing to enjoy his soft-shell taco in between punches.

The screenplay of “Machete” combines outrageous stunts and
hilariously overwrought dialogue with a bit of stinging satire as Machete faces
off against tough-talking, illegal immigrant-hating Texas senator John
McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro, impressively channeling John McCain, George W. Bush
and Glenn Beck), who campaigns for re-election on the platform of “no amnesty
for parasites” and hangs out with the despicable border patrolman Von (Don
Johnson), who shoots down Mexicans while declaring, “you’ve burned your last
burrito!” and similar witticisms.

Like many politicos, McLaughlin is surrounded by
high-powered hypocrites and morally bankrupt rich guys, such as Michael Booth
(Jeff Fahey), whose comfortable lifestyle is paid for with drug money, some of
it probably contributed by his slutty, crystal-meth-addicted daughter, April
(Lindsay Lohan, putting all her “charms” prominently on display). Booth is also
in cahoots with Torrez (a puffy Steven Seagal), the Mexican crime kingpin who once
tried to bump off Machete.

Also taking sides in the struggle of Machete versus The Man:
the absurdly attractive and determined Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, Sartana
(Jessica Alba), and a secretive sort named Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who
doesn’t appreciate being hassled by the Feds. “I just make tacos and sell them
to the workers of the world,” Luz snaps when Sartana tries to learn more about
her. “It fills their bellies with something besides hate.”

That line sums up "Machete" quite nicely: The Mexican characters are fiery and noble, while most of the Americans are sleazy (McLaughlin, Von and Booth), cheesy (Sartana) or easy (April). Rodriguez regularly gets his female stars to disrobe and many of the men wind up losing limbs instead of their clothes. Instead of camping it up, most of the actors play it reasonably straight, without commenting on the absurdities all around them, such as a meat thermometer being utilized as a lethal weapon, or an unfortunate thug's intestines being used as... well, see for yourself. While the subject matter may be timely and the violence ultra-gory, "Machete" is hardly more shocking than a Speedy Gonzalez cartoon -- and it's certainly a lot funnier.