The party line on Machete is that it's a romping, stomping throwback to the exploitation films of the 1970s, and this line exists, I have no doubt, because the film was born as one of the four fake trailers created for 2007's Grindhouse, itself probably the most entirely self-aware throwback to the exploitation films of the 1970s in a period that has been rather surprisingly full of such things. After thinking about it for a while, I wonder if this conventional wisdom isn't just a shade off: it's not a throwback to the '70s as much as it's an exploitation film that innocently seems to pretend that the '70s grind house circuit never actually shut down, that there has been an uninterrupted 30-year span of this sort of violence plus T&A in mainstream cinemas (and, if you twist things around and look at it from the right angle, there has been). The heart of the thing is that unlike most of the '70s throwbacks - such as Machete co-director Robert Rodriguez's own Planet Terror, the first half of Grindhouse - Machete makes not the slightest feint in the direction of pretending that it's a found object from that decade. It is in every way a movie of 2010, albeit one done in an idiom that has only recently come back into vogue, and then only out of the same nostalgia that seeks to claim Machete; but no. Both in its aesthetic and its narrative, this is an altogether contemporary film.

Opening with the de rigeur scene of a tough-as-nails cop being sold out by his corrupt boss, under the control of the local druglord, Machete certainly makes no claims for originality, here or anywhere. Three years later, that cop - an ex-Federale named, naturally, Machete (Danny Trejo) is living illegally in Texas, and from here he finds himself at the center of a massive whirlwind of conspiracies: hired by a shady man in a suit (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a snarling right-wing state senator (Robert De Niro), and romancing both the leader of the local pro-immigrant resistance (Michelle Rodriguez) and a guilt-ridden ICE agent (Jessica Alba). There's a local militia leader (Don Johnson) to contend with, as well as that same druglord (Steven Seagal), against whom Machete still craves revenge, for the murder of his wife and daughter. I'm not entirely sure how to describe the plot outwards from that scenario, without tripping across spoilers all the way: but to the surprise of absolutely nobody, all the bad guys turn out to be working on the same team, and Machete ends up leading an army of pissed-off Chicanos against a compound full of various unlikable whites.

More than anything else that leaves me with the feeling that this is the descendant of the '70s exploitation circuit rather than a loving homage is that hyper-current political edge - there is absolutely no way to separate out the part of the film that is a gritty, trashy potboiler from the part that is a fervent argument in favor of Mexican immigration into the United States. In this, Machete is not at all unlike the ethno-sploitation films of the '70s, which often (as a matter of commercial exigency or true political belief, it's not always easy to say) presented a similar message of, "the only way to secure your own rights is to beat the crap out of white people". Not that I'm accusing Rodriguez of deliberately fomenting race warfare; and I think anyone who tried to read race warfare into Machete rather seriously lacks a sense of humor. But there's no way around this: Machete is a film Of The Moment (I imagine that the filmmakers must have been kicking themselves earlier this year for lacking the foresight to set the project in Arizona), and none of the other grind house throwbacks have been, primarily choosing instead to recreate the formal elements of vintage cinema.

If this emphasis on the here-and-now aspects of its narrative separates Machete from its neo-exploitation peers, it's languid comedy marks it out from just about everything, really. It wouldn't take a particularly brave person to call the film an outright comedy, though that word might not be the most apt choice: rather that its absurdities are simply too big and too gaudy for us to take them seriously. Whatever else is true of the film, it is amazingly silly throughout, its silliness always wearing a stern, straight face. Trejo's face, more often than not, an implacable mask of irritated pissed-off-ness even when the actor is called upon to intone, with all stony seriousness, "Machete don't text". If you can get through that moment without giggling, my hat's off to you; though I also think you are robbing yourself of something important.

Machete threads a narrow line, at once a terribly vulgar exploitation film and a breezy, heavily ironic deconstruction of itself. There are a lot of tiny things that keep tugging us out of the movie: De Niro's presence is a big one (is he slumming? does he consider it slumming? what the hell is Robert De Niro doing in this kind of movie? the mind spins around this question until it explodes), as is Lindsay Lohan's tiny role as a woman who turns from drugs and sex to find solace in religion (a rather meanspirited but nonetheless funny joke that is just about as on-the-nose post-modern as anything in a movie theater this year); and plenty of little incidentals that have nothing to do with actors at all, but keep interrupting the flow the movie. It's next to impossible to take Machete seriously, as a revenge movie or an action picture or anything but a grand old time made on the cheap by a bunch of people who mostly wanted to hang out.

And yet: it's also a film that gets joy from showing Alba's naked body in a quick shot, from lingering over Michelle Rodriguez in tight leather, from vividly exploring what happens to various parts of the human body when you subject them to sharp objects or exploding rounds. It's as crass as anything else Robert Rodriguez has ever put his name to (and I cannot speak to this first-timer Ethan Maniquis who co-directs, though he has worked as some kind of editor or another on most of Rodriguez's films), though a great deal more self-conscious about its own crassness and even apologetic for it, than most of the director's work.

In the end, it is a movie that desperately wants to be a lot of trashy fun, and it primarily succeeds at this; though it is the work of filmmakers who cannot quite make up their mind where the line between "trash" and "fun" is meant to lie. It leaves Machete with the slightest of split personalities, neither as trashy nor as fun, nor indeed as creative, as Planet Terror; but it gets the job done. For a good old-fashioned wallow in the late summer of 2010, it's hard not to prefer Piranha 3D; but it could then be pointed out that Machete is less for wallowing than it is for glittering, low-impact tawdriness. It is disreputable without being outright sleazy: that is the exact phrase I have been hunting for, and when the mood for such a thing strikes, it's good to know that such things are still being produced.