When “Grindhouse” hit theaters in 2007, the twin-bill offering from directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez came equipped with its own set of fake trailers in between the two features. Though “Grindhouse” wasn’t a hit theatrically, the trailers were often the best remembered parts of the film. One of those trailers was for “Machete;” the story of a Mexican vigilante who is forced to fight against injustice in America. The original trailer was a hoot, and all of the jokes and characters it contained are recycled in this full-length version. But unfortunately, as is often the case, the stuff that’s in the trailer is all the best stuff in the movie.

“Machete” presents us with a laundry list of characters, among them Robert De Niro as a right-wing senator, Michelle Rodriguez as a taco truck operator, and even Cheech Marin as a cursing, pot-smoking priest. Danny Trejo plays the burly, stoic Machete, and spends most of the film in a growling-and-scowling competition with Jeff Fahey, a dirty businessman who approaches him to assassinate De Niro’s senator. The attempt goes bad after a series of double-crosses more complicated than a good recipe for flan, but along the way there are lots of gruesome kills, and also a fair amount of nudity, courtesy of Jessica Alba and Lindsey Lohan, playing Fahey’s aloof daughter.

Rodriguez is a talented filmmaker who nonetheless owes much of his career to his ties with Quentin Tarantino, who was an early champion of his first film “El Mariachi.” While “Machete” played marvelously as a fake trailer, ultimately the director squanders a golden opportunity to comment on the plight of Mexican Americans (and Mexicans in America) by making something completely disposable and forgettable. Coming from Rodriguez, “Machete” might have had some real staying power if it had anything remotely adult to contribute to the immigration debate, but it never gets its thoughts together long enough to complete a sentence. Trejo, ostensibly the film’s star, only gets about 150 words to say, which breaks down to roughly a word per minute in the film, and that doesn't give him much upon which to build a character. De Niro, like Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando before him, has completely gone adrift and checked out, having not given anything resembling a “performance” in a film since, by my judgment, 1997 (when he made “Wag the Dog” and “Jackie Brown.”)

The film is not without bright spots, however. Jessica Alba (who is currently dueling with Eva Mendes for dibs on being the next Julia Roberts) is excellent as an immigration officer and Machete’s would-be love interest. But ultimately, it is Rodriguez who sinks his own ship. Much as we might admire his 'handmade films' approach, the film is in desperate need of a screenwriter (the dialog is heavy-handed,) and an editor, too (his edits flow like an episode of CSI: Miami.) And, though Jimmy Lindsey is credited as the cinematographer, Rodriguez clearly taught him everything he knows (Lindsey was the camera operator on nearly all of Rodriguez’ previous films,) and his shot selection is downright boring. All this was fine when Rodriguez was making films for kids, such as his please-make-it-stop “Spy Kids” movies (a fourth installment is on the way,) but in “Machete” it’s way too pedestrian, and as a result the film collapses way too quickly.

If “Machete” had been made as part of a second “Grindhouse,” it would have no doubt mercifully been hacked down to 90 minutes or so, which would have been a marked improvement. And, if there's truly justice in cinema, one day we'll start seeing shorter director’s cuts of these popularly over-long films. In the end, though, it’s no coincidence that Rodriguez’ best films (“From Dusk ‘Til Dawn,” “Sin City”) are also the ones on which he worked from someone else’s script, enabling him to focus his craft in one direction, rather than in all directions. Rodriguez has built his career on being a jack of all trades, but just because he can do everything behind the camera doesn’t necessarily mean that he should.

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