On the one hand, Robert Rodriguez seems to be a really nice guy who, after his personal climb into film directing by selling his body to medical science to finance his debut El Mariachi, is always willing to help give opportunities to friends and family. But this means that Machete has co-writers and co-directors and isn’t coming as purely from Rodriguez himself as most of his other films, and the difference is a marked one. For every inspired gag or moment of creative brilliance, which often abound in the better Rodriguez films, here the audience has to wade through miles of tired cliche, mediocrity, and amateurish production.
And this isn’t simply the by-product of a faux-exploitation film. Rodriguez’s Grindhouse entry, Planet Terror, did much the same thing, but did so extremely successfully and with a manic creative energy to it. That was a prime example of how to smartly turn something on its ear, and how to be inventive and sly while hitting the right marks. It’s possible to send up the genre, but to do it with a knowing script that upends the genre’s conventions in interesting ways, or to make a good “bad” movie, or a smart “dumb” movie. In Machete though, the script is simply weak, or “bad” bad, and more often uninspired than not. It doesn’t help that the two female leads are played by Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez, who are mediocre actresses at best and barely capable of hitting one note. The most interesting performances are given by Jeff Fahey and Shea Wigham, two of the least well-known names in the cast. And for all of the opportunities Rodriguez provides himself with a great concept that has a lot of jumping off points, he never really picks up the opportunities he provides himself and runs with them. Some of the better moments include Machete using a bad guy’s intestines to jump out of a window and swing into the window of the floor below, and a fleet of pimped-out low rider cars pistoning down the street en masse. But it’s these very occasional flashes of brilliance that illuminate how bereft of inspiration the rest of the film is.
The script and dialogue aren’t simply bad in a way that’s true to the genre, they’re flat. The same holds true for the visual look of the film. It lacks Rodriguez’s usual auteur’s eye. Most of the set-ups feel like they were designed and executed by assistant assistant directors, and from the inclusion of Maniquis as a co-director and lots of other family members on the crew, it wouldn’t surprise me if that wasn’t very far from the truth; that Rodriguez actually did comparatively little hands-on work and let a lot of less talented and less experienced friends step up in his place. And any kind of argument that a flat, poorly-made film is a proper representation of the genre and therefore a successful achievement is missing the point; Rodriguez is capable of so much more. He is absolutely the kind of director capable of doing two things at once, at expanding and subverting a genre while playing within it. Finally, Lindsay Lohan is not only totally wasted here, but it feels like the sad state of her career is being exploited at her own expense as a bad joke; it’s sad and pulls the audience out of the film and even makes one question Rodriguez’s motives. Exploiting her isn’t the way to save his lackluster failure of an exploitation film.