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Guest Movie Review: Machete Kills

By (October 15, 2013) No Comment

bannerPaying homage to old-school, low-budget exploitation flicks from the sixties and seventies, Machete seemed like a pipe dream when a fake trailer was included in the Grindhouse double feature of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof back in 2007. The sub-three minute spoof trailer featured Rodriguez’s favorite tattooed anti-A-lister Danny Trejo as a Mexican lawman turned immigrant laborer turned vigilante, and was met with enthusiasm by audiences around the country. With the character already firmly entrenched in moviegoers’ subconscious, Rodriguez (alongside co-director Ethan Maniquis) gathered a gang of B-movie actors – including Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal and Lindsay Lohan – and even one A-lister (Robert De Niro) and pumped out a full-length Machete for the mass consumption. It was… interesting. As a full-length movie, Machete featured many of the pros of the exploitation scene (sex, blatantly crude language and bloody stumps where limbs were a moment before) but never really broke out of that limited mold, and while there’s no doubt the director had been aiming for “ironically bad,” he mostly just got the second part. There is an audience for this kind of movie… just not much of one.


But Rodriguez made some promises to those fans that showed up in 2010, and he came through just by following through with sequel Machete Kills. Following the continued adventures of Machete Cortez (a returning Trejo) as he is recruited by the President of the United States (played by “Winner” Charlie Sheen, under his true name Carlos Estevez) to eliminate a Mexican terrorist (Demian Bichir) with a missile aimed at the White House. In doing so he attracts the attentions of every bad guy in Latin America. Soon he’s facing off against face-changing bounty hunters, man-hating prostitutes with bullet-shooting Double-D’s, noose-happy racist vigilantes and drug cartels. On top of that, our hero finds himself in a position to stop a plot to destroy the planet via nuclear holocaust. It’s a bigger, more expansive world in this sequel.


Unfortunately, bigger does not always mean better, especially when you’re supposed to be part of a genre that is usually very limited in its resources. There’s a lot packed into that 108 minutes, ranging from a veritable army of ancillary characters to multiple side-plots to twist after twist after twist. The characters are perhaps the biggest issue, despite a true wealth of ability. Trejo is given little to do, and what he gets largely consists of staying silent while other characters monologue. He still manages to be solid, but the side characters are sorely undervalued by Kyle Ward’s (an untested screenwriter with multiple upcoming projects) lazily-assembled script. Sofia Vergara is fantastic but disappears in the final act. Amber Heard is a talented actress who vanished after her intro only to be re-introduced at the three-quarters mark. Michelle Rodriguez, such an integral part of the original, is barely present in the entire film. A rotating band of villains and one-trick ponies played by varied talents as Jessica Alba, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Vanessa Hudgens, Cuba Gooding Jr., Walton Goggins, Alexa Vega, Tom Savini, William Sadler and Marko Zaror barely rate mentioning, despite many being made such a big deal of in the trailers. And while Sheen is at least amusing, it’s dampened by the fact that he’s – perhaps for the first time – merely playing himself.


Machete runs into the same problem with its main antagonist. Anybody paying attention knows that Mel Gibson is bad guy numero uno. Much in the same way Steven Seagal’s appearance in the first film was the classic portrayal of a former action star making his “big comeback” in whatever he could get, Gibson returns to the big screen after a run of controversial comments and box office disappointments; his appearance is the ultimate Hollywood form of “copy+paste”. But he’s undermined here by the presence of Bichir, a more talented actor who gets much more screen time and does much, much more with it. Gibson meanwhile is a shadow of his former glory, his appearance here hardly worthy of the hype put into it.


If it was just campy acting that was holding back Machete, that would be fine; it would even be expected. But the story is the real culprit, and not just because the plot is implausible and full of holes, and the dialogue is dumb and clichéd. Again, that would be the kind of thing we would assume to be there. The issue is that Rodriguez plays it straight, straying from the film’s Grindhouse roots and as a result, the experience lacks much of the fun the genre would usually provide. It doesn’t help that many of the jokes fall flat, the writing so lazy and uninspired that it’s no surprise the actors show little relish in their dialogue. The blame for this can be laid squarely on Rodriguez’s shoulders: so happy with how the original Machete performer, the director tries to pack way too much in. What was good about the original was that it was refreshingly basic, a simple journey that focused more on the exploitative elements over story, drawing you in by having fun rather than trying to deepen a story. This is something Rodriguez seems to have forgotten in the sequel.


As the film wraps up in anticipation for the now-announced third part Machete Kills Again… In Space, you can’t help but feel a combined sense of respect and frustration. The new sequel was announced as a “fake” trailer before the main feature gets going, and there’s something to be said for not only unironically leading the story into that promised-but-not-quite-believed outer-space vein, but also the recognition that sending a franchise outside the Earth’s atmosphere is a silly, desperate move. On the other hand, Rodriguez seems to have ended this sequel the way he did not because he had any great climax in hand, but because he ran out of time. It wouldn’t be so bad if Machete Kills had been the mildly-entertaining Grindhouse homage that its predecessor had been. There are a few laughs to be had but unfortunately, there’s just not much here to get excited about, despite the flashy explosions and requisite gore. It’s just too… familiar. After establishing new ground with the original, Machete Kills just feels like more of the same of an overplayed gimmick. Perhaps Rodriguez ought to step away from this series (as well as the swiftly tanking Spy Kids franchise) and put out some original fare again, and remind everyone what a good director we all used to think he was.


John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. The rest of his film reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson (http://latestissue.blogspot.com)