I wrote four separate intros to this review, each of them detailing the highs of Robert Rodriguez’s career. But if you’re reading Collider, you already know. The $7,000 Spanish language action flick funded with money earned while working as a medical test subject that turned an ambitious young outsider with no connections into a commercial juggernaut so successful and prolific that he launched five franchises – all in different genres – built his own backlot, and now is about to launch his very own television station, The El Ray Network. And while the Horatio Alger story of Troublemaker Studios and Rodriguez’s D.i.Y. enthusiasm still inspires, the films have long since gone limp. If you already know Rodriguez’s story, you probably already know everything that Machete Kills has to offer. And just like most of the z-grade schlock it aspires to, it’s more fun in concept than it is in practice.
Hit the jump for the full Blu-ray review.
Machete Kills begins with a police raid where Machete loses his partner. After some redneck border patrol officers attempt to lynch him, Machete is brought to the White House and sent on a mission to Mexico. A cartel leader has a super weapon and Machete needs to bring him down. Machete’s only aid on the mission is an operative who’s undercover as a Texas beauty queen. Things get complicated when he discovers the cartel leader has two personalities: a despot and a socialist revolutionary. And the bomb’s timer is linked to his heartbeat. There’s also something about a cannibalistic madam. And Machete and the cartel guy end up on the run. And then Mel Gibson is there as a mad scientist cult leader. And Tom Savini is a priest on a mission of vengeance. And they throw Vanessa Hudgens out of a helicopter. And there’s this assassin who always wears a different famous person’s face…Um.
I’m not being glib here: I watched this movie yesterday and after the first 20 minutes, I really can’t tell you what the hell was happening.
And it really shouldn’t be confusing. This is the fifth time in a row that Rodriguez has employed the Sergio Leone-esque cameo-friendly setup of interlocking crime narratives filled with over the top gimmick-based characters. It’s all variation on a theme*:
Once Upon a Time in Mexico introduced his now patented style of ensemble action with big name actors playing small parts. The speed of digital filmmaking allowed Rodriguez to cast much bigger names and film their roles in just a few days.
Sin City doubled down on the cameo filmmaking by completely removing sets from the equation. With just a green screen and a high definition Canon, Rodriguez was able to make a movie where every role was a known face. Consequently, each face got less screen time. He also upped the violence quotient by introducing an elaborate visual form that made stories of mutant child molesters more palatable.
Planet Terror ran with the super-extreme violence and paired with a recursive meta-text that invaded the narrative in the form of a missing reel. Sure, it was kinda funny, but it was also a very clear statement that Rodriguez didn’t care about the characters and that any audience member who tried to engage the film as a story was a fool. This film also continued the trend of gimmick casting, moving into the realm where the audience’s previous knowledge of the actor’s resume was a big part of the on-screen character’s shtick.
Machete comes entirely from a place where the violence is funny and completely without consequence. From the very first frame you are constantly reminded that you are watching a “Movie” and never just watching a movie. There are about a dozen interlocking plot
threads here, but very few characters with more than two scenes. While the first three films cut between different plots, Machete just barrels forward like a sketch film.
Machete Kills follows this path to the point where it is entirely swallowed by its’ proscenium. It begins with a fake trailer for Machete Kills Again … In Space and ends without any type of closure. There is plenty of ultra- violence, but now it’s not even put into the context of characters or plot, it just happens. On multiple occasions, scenes stop dead so that one character or another can randomly shoot a background actor. Instead of a protagonist caught between multiple adversaries, Machete simply encounters his enemies one after the other. After a while, it takes on the feeling of watching a whole season of a monster-of-the-week television series.
In Mexico Johnny Depp started out as an annoying “Ugly American” who was really a CIA agent. Then he embroiled himself in a scheme, had his morals tested and got his eyes cut out. Then, he transformed into an iconic blinded gunfighter who maybe reached redemption with the help of a street urchin child. There’s no time for something like that in Machete Kills. Depp would already have his eyes gouged out in scene one. With so many characters, there is only time for a story’s punch line.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of the Chameleon. The Chameleon is an assassin aiming to collect a hefty bounty on Machete’s head. Instead of developing as a character or helping to forward the plot, the Chameleon shows up in the scene, murders a random passerby and then removes his face to reveal yet another cameo. We never get to know this character and the actors don’t play him in any consistent way, he’s just a random cutaway gag used four times. I think he turns into Lady Gaga and gets into a car crash in the end.
The ironic distance of Rodriguez’s authorial voice clouds the movie on a fundamental level of concept too. The film doesn’t know what it wants to be. Machete was at least clearly aimed at spoofing exploitation action movies. Machete Kills is more of a James Bond spoof. But only sometimes. Other times it’s still a Latino Shaft. Other times it’s a creature feature. Other times it’s a broad political satire. And very often it’s spoofing a type of movie that I don’t think anyone ever made, making inside-baseball references to filmmaking styles that never actually existed.
The joke of, “It’s a movie!” works when Ben Stiller picks the perfect moment to cue “Can’t Touch This” in a fake trailer from Tropic Thunder because it reads like a movie. Everyone in the audience understands the cliche and can laugh at it being used for the opposite of the original intent. Conversely, during this movie’s faux-trailer opening includes a freeze frame with an on screen asterisk noting that the masked villain credited as Leonardo DiCaprio is, “Subject to change.” And that’s literally the entire joke. There is a guy in a mask and the filmmakers are claiming he is played by a famous dude, but then telling the audience that he might not be. You know, just like in… No movie trailer, ever.
Thirty seconds after this, we get a weird Justin Bieber gag that consists of a plastic model with a shaggy haircut ‘played’ by Justin Bieber. See, it’s funny because you’ve heard Justin Bieber’s name and probably know that he has a silly haircut. Later, Danny Trejo meets Amber Heard – who has made a career out of being excellent in terrible projects – and has sex with her in 3D. Except, it’s shot in a way that looks nothing like an old 3D movie, moves nothing like an old 3D movie and has no discernible punch line except for the fact that it’s supposed to be a reference.
Tropic Thunder is not only the superior meta comedy, it also has better action and cooler gore. In fact, it would be a stretch to call Machete Kills an action movie. Rodriguez has subsumed himself so wholly in a world of in-joke pastiche that he seems to have lost interest in making it look cool. There are dozens of scenes involving gun fights and plenty of bloodletting, but it’s never thrilling. And it’s not even framed like it’s supposed to be thrilling. It’s just flat, straight on shots. Some of the big shootouts are filmed with the same masters, mediums, closeups and coverage that you might expect in talky coffee shop scene from a mid-budget romantic comedy. I suppose there is a small chance that Rodriguez went “full-retard” on this one and limited his shot selection to match that of no-budget regional films like Abby – The Black Exorcist (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MckW5bcHNDs) but, why?
This film was clearly low-budget, but Rodriguez did make a $7,000 action movie one time. And it’s watchable to this day. With Machete Kills, Rodriguez has abandoned his strengths to wander down a rabbit hole of glib, half-understood postmodernism, making something intentionally bad instead of intending to make something good.
Look at this cast: Danny Trejo, Mel Gibson, Demian Bichir, Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Hudgens, Alexa Pena-Vega, Marko Zaror, Tom Savini, Jessica Alba and William Sadler. Wasted, each and every one. I’m hard pressed to conceive of a less interesting R-rated exploitation film that could be made with these players. You will recognize almost every single face on screen, but you won’t remember a single word that comes out of their mouths.
Oh, I get the DiCaprio joke now. Everyone in this movie is famous, but they might as well be played by stunt doubles.
The attentive reader may have noticed that I’ve just spent over 1000 words without discussing Trejo, the film’s star. That’s because he doesn’t really do much of anything. At 69-year old, Trejo just kind of stands around and looks cool. Things happen around him, but he almost never makes a choice or forwards the narrative. He’s entirely reactive and his action beats are a bit embarrassing. Charles Bronson was almost the same age when he made the all time classic Death Wish III and he was significantly more agile in that, even without the aid of digital wire removal, CGI blood squibs and life experience involving actual street violence.
I used to really, really love Robert Rodriguez. Desperado influenced my taste for violent cinema, Spy Kids charmed the bejesus out of me and his 10-Minute Film School shorts taught me lots of tricks that I used in my own teenage video romps. But the well has run dry. Very, very dry. I know that Rodriguez’s career took a hit after the failure of Grindhouse and that he spent a lot the last few years working on a wide variety of projects that never made it to the screen. I’m not blaming the man for making the movies he can get green lit. But the problems in Machete Kills don’t look like studio interference. It really looks like Rodriguez had strong creative control on this film and failed to make something worthwhile.
It’s generally poor form to talk this much about a filmmaker’s earlier work in a review, but it’s unavoidable in this case. I’m not some whiny fanboy who wishes that Rodriguez would go back to making – to paraphrase a famous Woody Allen line, “His earlier, bloodier ones” – I’m a whiny fanboy who grew up on Rodriguez and wishes desperately that the man would stop making them like he used to. We’re at the point of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy and the image as become illegible. It’s time to move on to something new, because by the end of Machete Kills, Rodriguez captures the essence of only two exploitation filmmakers: Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.
Unlike previous Rodriguez releases, there are very few features here. Only a collection of deleted scenes, including baby Machete in a jar. The deleted scenes are kind of interesting because they show you alternate audio, unfinished special effects and a few deleted plot lines. Not great, but they do give you a sense of the filmmaking process.
I would expect a special edition release of Machete Kills at some point, though probably not packaged with the original because that was released by a different studio. There is no reason to buy this disc unless you are an absolute Rodriguez completist. And even then, you’re better off pretending this doesn’t exist.
*Rodriguez took a similar approach to his family-oriented endeavors during this time. The Spy Kids series, Sharkboy and Lava Girl in 3D, and Shorts all fall into a similar pattern with questionable CGI replacing increasingly detached ultra-violence.