TIME's Review of Machete: Sharp, Bloody Fun

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20th Century Fox

Danny Trejo stars as a legendary ex-Federale in Machete

Machete (Danny Trejo) needs to check out of a hospital, quick, and alive; bad men keep trying to kill him. No exit, the nurses tell him. Spotting a window at the safer end of the corridor, he slices open the belly of one of his pursuers, pulls out the guy's intestines and vaults out the window, crashing back in through the window on the floor below. Might seem a little extreme but, as director–co-writer–producer–everything-else Robert Rodriguez explains, "The intestine is 10 times longer than the human body. True fact." Not true, actually — more like four times longer — but hey, Machete is a movie.

To be precise, it's the action comedy the summer of 2010 has been promising for nearly four months but waited till Labor Day weekend to deliver. After the various disappointments and underperformances of Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, MacGruber, Prince of Persia, Killers, The A-Team, Knight & Day, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Salt, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Expendables, audiences can be grateful for this lithe and knowing pastiche. It's also quite possibly the first movie to be a remake of a trailer; Rodriguez created a promo for the then fictional Machete as part of his Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. Maybe you remember a scene from that clip, in which Cheech Marin plays a priest called to arm himself against an angry mob? And when a man on the receiving end of Marin's gun pleads for mercy, the padre replies, "God has mercy. I don't," and blasts away? Well, this Machete is that one plus about 90 more minutes of shooting, double-dealing and exploding heads — nonstop mayhem with a corpse count in the hundreds and a merry wink in every eye that hasn't been sliced open.

A salsa of every macho movie trope plied over the past half-century in films from Hollywood to Hong Kong, Machete hits U.S. theaters Friday, Sept. 3, but got its world premiere as the opening day's midnight showing at the Venice Film Festival, where Hong Kong director John Woo will be given a lifetime achievement award. That's fitting, since, as Rodriguez has said, "When I watched John Woo's movies, they made me want to be Asian. Woo and Chow Yun-fat's Hard Boiled and The Killer really inspired me to make films that would create that feeling in the Latin arena." Machete, which Rodriguez co-directed with Ethan Marquis, is a giddy action film with a timely message: that Mexicans living in Texas, legally or not, can be heroes too. We need them to battle the purring gringo establishment that uses Latino immigrants both as a volatile race card and as cheap labor to prop up the Southwest economy.

The haves here are represented by three white guys in the private and public sectors. Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro, doing a Texas take on a Democrat's worst nightmare of John McCain) is running for re-election on the Troglodyte platform: that "every time an illegal crosses the border, it's an act of terrorism against our state." His political operative, Booth (Jeff Fahey, as a Karl Rove type with more up-front menace), hires Machete to assassinate McLaughlin, but of course it's a ruse to make the Senator a hero and Machete the face of Latino terror. These two hard cases are in cahoots with a Mexican drug lord, Torrez (Steven Seagal), who in the first scene tries luring Machete with a beautiful woman before shooting at him and killing her. Then there's the vigilante lawman Stillman (Don Johnson), who sees a visibly pregnant woman at the border, observes, "If it's born here, it gets to be a citizen, just like you and me," and — boom! —shoots the woman dead. One less illegal; one less terror baby.

Who can overcome this consortium of venality? Start with two principled women — Sartana (Jessica Alba), a federal agent trying to root out a Tex-Mex revolutionary cell, and Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), the leader of that cell. These two, who could be sisters iconographically and soon are metaphorically, serve as strong handmaidens to the hero, inhabited with stolid charm by Trejo. Hulking but still vigorous at 66, Trejo has a face like a suitcase that airport baggage handlers have sadistically perforated and repeatedly slammed against a wall. He normally plays goons and cons; it took Rodriguez to see he could carry a film.

Trejo's life story could make a pretty good movie. A child criminal and drug addict, he became a lightweight and welterweight boxing champ at San Quentin. He had graduated from a 12-step program and was counseling fellow addicts when one of his charges asked him to come by the set of the 1985 movie Runaway Train, based on a novel by a fellow San Quentinite. Director Andrei Konchalovsky saw Trejo and put him in the film; a quarter-century later, he's appeared in nearly 200 movies, eight of them directed by Rodriguez — who, the two men learned when they were shooting Desperado in 1995, is Trejo's second cousin.

Rodriguez has assembled a crazy-quilt cast, from multiple-Oscar winner De Niro to Seagal and Fahey: widely acclaimed as two of the very worst actors of the past few decades but who both fill their villain roles like the tasty junk food inside a taco. Lindsay Lohan is here too, as a plutocrat's pampered daughter who has a naked threesome with her mother and Machete. (If any idea, no matter how weird, pops into Rodriguez's head, he says, What the hell, and films it.) Designed and destined to win no awards, Machete is expert, cartoon-violent, lighthearted fun. Just the thing to send Junior back to school in a good mood.