Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2013)

17. Machete Kills

As previously discussed, Robert Rodriguez had always intended “Machete” to be a franchise. In fact, the director was so confident that the world needed an series of low-budget action films starring Danny Trejo that he ended the first “Machete” by promising two sequels: “Machete Kills” and “Machete Kills Again.” That might have seemed a little presumptuous but Rodriguez was right about the demand. As the prophecy foretold, “Machete Kills” was unleashed on audiences in 2012. I suspect that Rodriguez fully intended to hand the reigns of the series to Ethan Maniquis. You'd think he would have more important things to do than direct a bunch of low budget sequels. Instead, the main guy himself would be flying solo on the follow-up.

After a mission to take down a Mexican drug cartel goes horribly wrong, Machete is left strung up in a Texas prison. He is saved at the last minute by a phone call from the President of the United States. The blade-slinging vigilante is recruited by the government to take out Marcos Mendez, a Mexican revolutionary with a nuclear missile pointed at Washington. But the bomb is wired to Mendez' heart, forcing Machete to take him across the border. There, the honorable warrior realizes that Luthor Voz, an insane weapons manufacturer who believes himself to be psychic, has been manipulating everything. Voz hopes to destroy the world in nuclear hellfire and build a new civilization in space. It's up to Machete to make sure that doesn't happen.

The first “Machete” intentionally went for over-the-top action theatrics. That macho ridiculousness often had it veering towards comedy. “Machete Kills,” however, is far more pleased with its goofy comedy. Before a psychedelic sex scene, there's a prompt to put on 3-D glasses. This is a possible self-jab at Rodriguez making a few 3-D movies. If that's the case, it's not the only reference the director makes to his own movies. The cock gun from “From Dusk Till Dawn” reappears. The El Rey Network is mentioned by name. There's an out-of-place weed joke, a Gatling gun equipped brassiere, a winking Elon Musk cameo, and a random appearances from famous “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” props. The film is so self-satisfied, that it begins and ends with trailers for its own sequel.

That fake trailer promises to send Machete into outer space, in addition to a juvenile Justin Bieber jab. That's the first indication that “Machete Kills” will be making a bizarre shift into science fiction in its second half. While knowingly ridiculous, the first “Machete” was still ostensibly grounded in our reality. After a quasi-realistic first half, the sequel suddenly introduces clones, psychic powers, teleportation, and “Flash Gordon”-style ray guns. The climax features a bunch of zeerust, fake futuristic space outfits and multiple rockets. It's all really out-of-place, seeming like an excessive detour from what we're actually here to see. You wonder if Rodriguez only had a decent idea for a real “Machete” sequel before swerving hard into this goofy space shit.

Machete was already a hyper powerful, male power fantasy. He kills the bad guy and gets the girl, after all. The sequel leans into this even harder, intentionally making Machete a Bond-like figure. He's officially a secret agent now. He gets his share of gadgets and even the exposition to go along with them. (Which helps explain the sci-fi stuff in the second half. I guess Rodriguez is a big “Moonraker” fan...) He also has multiple girls to bed. Which means Jessica Alba's Sartana has to get the axe. She's offhandedly killed in the opening action scene, her death only getting a few passing mentions from there on out. It's another disappointing fridging from Rodriguez, though at this point, I can't say I didn't expect it.

The first “Machete” did have its joys as an utterly ridiculous action flick. There are certainly awesome ideas contained within “Machete Kills.” Machete disembowels a dude and yo-yos him into the rotors of a helicopter with his own intestines. Helicopter blades crop up as weapons again, Machete spinning himself around on one or grappling another goon into some others. There's a three-way car chase involving two vans and an indestructible nitro wagon. Decapitated heads are tossed into the air, switching bodies. As fun as this all sounds, Rodriguez robs some of the action beats of their thrill factor by utilizing too much CGI. The blood looks incredibly fake and so do many of the other stunts, such as when Machete weaponizes an overturned boat propeller. Or uses laser guns to turn some goons inside-out. This means the more down-to-Earth moments are cooler, such as a meat cleaver toss being reversed or a van flipping over.

“Machete Kills” does seem to confirm that the lack of typical Rodriguez action in the first film might've been the work of the co-director. That fast-paced action direction and editing returns hard here. Split-screens seem to be Robbie's new favorite trick. A phone call leaps back and forth between the various participants, multiple faces appearing on-screen. A similar gag appears in the opening trailer, to emphasize the power of Machete's blows. Naturally, there's lots of fast paced editing and swirling camera work in the fight scenes. More than once, we have rough zoom-ins on various discarded guts or back-flip.

While “Machete Kills” is the very definition of excessive, it's surprisingly more restrained as far as plotting goes. Unlike Rodriguez' last few action-fests, he manages to keep the inessential subplots to a fairly reasonable number. Yes, the whole plot point with Mendez ends up being a total misdirect but at least that antagonistic force rolls smoothly into the next. The director can't totally resist himself. After abducting the first villain, a price is put on Machete's head, allowing for more fight scenes and some additional enemies. Lastly, Machete is briefly pursued by an enraged brothel mistress and her machine gun wielding prostitutes. Neither of these plot points are actually resolved, Rodriguez obviously hoping to wrap things up in the next movie. But at least he didn't throw in a dozen different story ideas this time.

In fact, one of the digressions is even sort of fun. Among the bounty hunters going after Machete is El Chameleon. This particular contract killer is constantly changing their face, switching freely between genders and never staying in one guise for too long. This allows Rodriguez to get way more special guest stars into the movie. It's also a genuinely fun gimmick. Walter Goggins is genuinely intense as the first Chameleon, appearing in a tense, bar room exchange that would've worked as its own short. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Antonio Banderas ham it up in their appearances as the second and fourth iterations. Of all people, Lady Gaga shows up as the third Chameleon, though she shows some spark in the part.

Gaga is not the only stunt casting appearing in the film. In fact, the first film's tendency towards shoving recognizable faces into the cast just for the hell of it increases. The most apparent example of this is Charlie Sheen – excuse me, Carlos Estevez – as punningly named President Rathcock. Remember, this was during Sheen's brief re-emergence as an internet meme. He trots out the same hammy nonsense here. Sofia Vergara at least has some fun as the raunchy Madame Desdemona, even if she doesn't expand past her typical choochie-choochie act. Vanessa Hudgens shows up for no other reason than the presumed edginess of a former Disney Channel star showing up in an R-rated flick. Also cast for stunt-y reasons is Mel Gibson, getting his ass fictionally kicked by Danny Trejo as some sort of weird penance for his real life racism. Gibson, scumbag though he may be, is at least entertaining as a sweaty, faux-profound villain.

Granted, not every addition to the cast was done strictly because their mere presence would get a laugh of recognition out of the audience. It's nice to have Michelle Rodriguez back. She attacks some of the genuinely embarrassing dialogue she's given with gusto. The same can be said for Amber Heard, who's bad girl theatrics are at least fun. William Sadler is amusingly campy as the redneck sheriff who attempts to lynch Machete. Marko Zaror has an impressive physicality as the cloned henchman. Demian Bichir plays a villain with multiple personality disorder and makes each manifestation distinct. Tom Savini is brought back for pretty much no reason, playing the same character but acting totally differently. And then there's Alexa Vega, wearing very little clothing, a bit of otherwise welcome exploitation that gets a little weird when you remember Rodriguez quite literally watched her grow-up.

“Machete Kills” is much too silly a motion picture to make any sort of salient political or social point. The first film did have a point, that anti-immigration rhetoric was just a cover for making money off people's racism and foolishness. The sequel makes brief declaration that closed borders are an obviously ridiculous premise. Yet the movie's political side does become weirdly prescient. In this film, a d-bag president that ran on a seemingly conservative platform has built a wall separating America and Mexico. Which is a weirdly specific claim that can't help but come off as an accurate prediction. But then the movie makes that president a swaggering, bro-tastic cool guy, so I don't know what the hell Rodriguez is trying to say here.

Like I said, ”Machete Kills” is so invested in its space-set sequel that it leaves several plot points dangling, hoping to wrap them up in the next installment. This apparently did not entice the public. “Machete Kills” only made 15 million dollars at the box office against a 20 million dollar budget. Despite Danny Trejo occasionally claimingMachete Kills Again in Spaceis definitely happening, I don't think we'll see a resolution to this story any time soon. While I'm generally a fan of Rodriguez' juvenile dumb-assery, even I'll admit that “Machete Kills” goes too far. Some of its over-the-top ideas are fun but the willingness with which it embraces concepts outside the series' appeal is baffling. It's humor and smug sense of irony is also too high, sucking the fun out of much of the antics. Watching Danny Trejo cut folks up is fun but this one feels like a sketch comedy premise stretched way past its breaking point. [Grade: C]

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