The appeal of Rodriguez's '70s grindhouse influenced films like Machete Kills is bound to wear thin one day, but not today.
When approaching my critique of Machete Kills—Robert Rodriguez‘s second entry into the eponymous character’s bloody B-movie saga that started with a fake trailer and continued in 2010’s Machete–I made the firm decision to not deny my inner 9-year-old that was having an absolute blast in the theater. Sure, I could poke and prod at the film’s cheap-o special effects, poor acting (only in some cases–there are strong performances here), and asinine plot, but wouldn’t that be missing the point? To be distracted by the film’s “faults” (many of which, like in other Rodriguez offerings, imbue the film with a sense of big fun) would hinder me from mining Machete Kills‘ many riches–spectacular violence, gleefully shameless cameos, tasteless zinger-happy dialog, a bad-ass anti-hero, and a villain who is more fantastic than he has any right to be.
Machete (Danny Trejo) is recruited (against his will) by the president of the United States (Carlos Estevez, a peculiarly familiar face…) to stop a maniac Mexican warlord (a scene-stealing Demian Bichir) from launching a nuclear strike on Washington D.C. He’s been promised–if he’s successful–U.S. citizenship and a clean record. On his action-packed mission, he encounters allies and enemies both new and old (all played by a bucketload of A and B-list celebs) and wreaks blood-splattered havoc along the U.S.-Mexican border. The killing spree leads Machete to the mastermind behind it all–a diabolical tech wizard played earnestly and hilariously by an on-point Mel Gibson.
Again, I’m not going to deny my inner child in my critique, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give the film’s flaws a pass. I acknowledge that Rodriguez’s game isn’t to make movie Mona Lisas, but even if we play by his rules, he fumbles the ball quite a bit. A lot of the gags–including a lot of the one-liners Trejo unenthusiastically mutters (“Machete don’t text”)–aren’t funny, period. In an awful scene, Michelle Rodriguez–playing Machete’s old ally, Luz–sniffs him (after he’s gotten busy with a girl hours earlier) and says she smells “fish taco”. Lady Gaga, Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Walton Goggins play the same character (an un-cleverly conceived villain called El Camaleón), and with the exception of Goggins (he’s good in everything), the cameos are an utter waste, amounting to a parade of idiotic posing (Gaga) and a lame joke of against-type casting (Gooding Jr. and Banderas) that’s clichéd and isn’t funny for a second. Sofia Vergara plays a sadomasochist who yells and shoots bullets out of her tits and vagina, a gag that was much funnier in Austin Powers 16 years ago.
The good news is, the major players in the film–Trejo, Gibson, Bichir, and a sizzling Amber Heard–are unbelievably entertaining, committing to the material with all their hearts. Unlike the rest of the cast, they don’t play it like a joke; from Bichir’s mad-man schizo lunacy, to Heard’s luscious sexuality (and perfect Spanish accent), to Gibson’s Oscar-mode performance, the quality of work these actors offer up is, frankly, surprising. Gibson is so good at being evil here one wonders why he hasn’t been cast in the villain role more often. Trejo’s dialog delivery isn’t on-par with his top-tier co-stars, but visually, physically, he embodies everything a testosterone craved moviegoer wants in an action hero.
With a title like Machete Kills, the death scenes had better be spectacular, and boy do they deliver. Rodriguez’s Mortal Kombat style violence engages the same twisted area of the imagination young boys use when blowing their action figures to smithereens with bb guns or melting their army men to puddles of plastic with matches in the backyard. It’s sadistic, sure, but it’s all in good fun. Heads roll, bullets rip flesh, innards explode (courtesy of a sci-fi gun that turns objects inside-out), and faces get melted (just like the army men!), but the most entertaining kills are the inventive ones. My personal favorite is one in which Machete latches himself to a spinning propeller of a helicopter with a grappling hook, sticks his machete out (there’s a dick joke in there, for sure), and lobs of the heads of a dozen or so baddies like some sort of gruesome, demonic carnival ride.
Rodriguez cleverly avoids showing graphic sex (be sure to bring your 3-D glasses!), though there are plenty of scantily clad ladies running around to satiate all you horn-dogs out there (I, as an esteemed journalist, am obviously not interested in such naughty things). The film bookends with trailers for the next film in the series, Machete Kills Again: In Space, keeping the spirit of the original “fake” trailer alive while nostalgically recalling the days of grainy VHS tapes, and I’ll be happy to make the trip out to the theater to watch Machete hack and slash again. The appeal of Rodriguez’s ’70s grindhouse influenced films like Machete Kills is bound to wear thin one day, but not today.