What began as a fake trailer inserted in the middle of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s failed hymn to the glories of exploitation cinema, Machete (the exclamation mark is implied) has now been expanded by writer and director Rodriguez into a real movie. He mightn’t have bothered; it was better as a two minute spoof.

In his first starring role in a 25 year career, leather-faced Danny Trejo plays a former Mexican policeman nicknamed Machete who is hired to assassinate a Texan politician (Robert De Niro) by a wealthy political fixer (Jeff Fahey). The fixer, in turn, is working for a Confucius-spouting drug lord (Steven Seagal) who is in league with a crooked white-supremacist sheriff (Don Johnson).

Helping Machete overthrow the devils oppressing his immigrant countrymen are his brother, a heavily- armed parish priest (Cheech Marin) and a twinned pair of scantily-dressed all-action women, a revolutionary truck-stop café owner (Michelle Rodriguez) and a sympathetic FBI agent (Jessica Alba). Later, Lindsay Lohan defies casting to type in a cameo as a dumb blonde, strung out on drugs, taking her clothes off on the internet “to please her fans”. When Machete’s mission goes wrong and he becomes a wanted man, he connects with the secretive immigrant underground in order to hatch an elaborate revenge.

What follows is essentially an extended elaboration on the same tittering exploitation themes Rodriguez really should have gotten out of his system after Grindhouse. Told in a series of breathlessly camp and eye-wateringly violent scenes of random butchery, sleazy nudity and grisly visual humour, Machete is realised as a live-action cartoon, albeit one strictly for grown-ups. The thin plot unfolds exactly as you might expect; a blizzard of crosses and double-crosses, beheadings and dismemberments, shootouts and standoffs.

Trejo has an unforgettable face but he makes for a less than charismatic leading man. His blazing eyes and rolling shoulders carry tremendous threat but he lacks the range to turn his sleazy angel of vengeance into anything other than a caricature of a mangled tough guy. Almost silent and dripping with knives, Machete beats the lining out of every man he encounters while every woman falls swooning at his feet. Rodriguez also employs his outcast anti-hero as the conduit for a series of pointed political messages, among them a parody of the recent attempts in Arizona to build an enormous fence along the border with Mexico and a racist election campaign television advertisement, which imagines illegal immigrants as scuttling cockroaches beneath the heel of the senator’s cowboy boot.

These moments of social commentary, studded throughout the wider narrative, are where Rodriguez finds the room to do what he does best: quipped one-liners, cynical visual jokes and self-consciously shabby, home-made special effects work. The director is less successful in sustaining his thinly-sketched characters as they jump through the various hoops in the story, with the result that when his film isn’t being randomly entertaining, it’s deathly dull. With a running time of just under two hours, perhaps the surprise is not that Machete wears out its welcome but how quickly it does so.

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