Danny Trejo, the star of Machete, has a face that's so rough, craggy, and etched with hard living that it's like a natural rock formation. With a tattooed torso as thick as a refrigerator, and long oily black hair that frames his simmering coal-fire eyes, Trejo, like Mickey Rourke, is a freakishly hypnotic camera subject. Depending on which angle he's shot from, he can look like the world's toughest biker, a Native American shaman, or a very angry carp. As Machete (pronounced ''ma-chet-ay''), a former Mexican federale who becomes a ghost of a man after his wife is slaughtered in front of him by a drug kingpin (Steven Seagal), Trejo is so badass he's funny. Yet the movie, codirected by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, never treats him like a joke. When he slashes people with his machete, which he favors because he's a true warrior (as opposed to the wimps who hide behind their guns), he's an unholy ethnic avenger out of a '70s walking-tall fantasy.
And he really is, since Machete, a gory, pulpy wink of an action thriller, was spun out of a parody trailer Rodriguez directed for the '70s-trash homage Grindhouse (2007). The trailer was sublime. As a feature, Machete is more fun than it isn't, but its deadpan mockery of exploitation clichés often slips a bit too close to being the real, schlocky thing. Machete, who gets hired to assassinate a Texas politician (Robert De Niro) running a hate campaign against illegal immigrants, discovers that he has been set up as a patsy. The violence is splatterifically witty, but the minor marvel of Machete is how mean everyone in the movie is. Rodriguez, however, gets so caught up in making an anti-border-fence message movie that the last half hour doesn't build; it sprawls, chaotically. Still, see Machete for Trejo, who barely cracks a smile, or even an emotion, but makes grade-Z stoic invincibility cool again. B