Machete Kills

Machete don’t blog

Robert Rodriguez is the only director left who makes pure action films worth a damn anymore, and it’s in part because of his affectionate spoofing of the ’70s exploitation film genre.  The absurd action of Desperado still upstages anything John Woo has ever done – look at the differences in how seriously each film’s stunt-laden gunslinging takes itself.  The original Machete, which grew out of a fake prevue in front of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (also a parody film), took time-honored grindhouse traditions (unbelievable violence, unbridled misogyny, unnatural levels of badassery, a plot too big for its britches, missing reels, and way too many characters) and rolled them into an hour and a half of nostalgia.  The roadblock I continually hit here, as much as I like the first film, is that when you do a sequel, people take it more seriously because they now have expectations.  Machete (Danny Trejo) may be a thin character, but by the time Machete Kills was released, viewers of the first film had already known him for several years, and cheered on his relationship with biracial Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba).  Thus, whether or not a common convention of cheaply made exploitation films is to kill off the “love interest” at the start of the next film as a throwaway excuse for the protagonist to go off on another killing spree, it’s not funny when Sartana is shot in the face by a luchador with a laser gun.  Uh, spoiler, I guess.

On that note, many women are brutalized in this film.  Yeah, it’s all tongue in cheek, but it’s still happening on screen, it’s still being acted out, we’re still seeing it and paying for it and swallowing it.  Sofia Vergara and Alexa Vega play a couple of prostitutes bent on revenge (on whom?  More later).  It’s supposed to be funny – look at the types of ridiculous characters that folks in the ’70s thought were empowering or this or that! – but the fact is, this movie was released this year, and we’re not past a lot of this stuff yet (plus, most know Vega as a pre-teen in Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, where she played a more layered heroine).  Vanessa Hudgens, one of the better actors in the film, plays an innocent bystander (figuratively) who is shot multiple times and tossed from a helicopter after becoming a victim of Rodriguez’s still-evident issue of immediately killing off characters when he does not know what to do with them in the plot.  Michelle Rodriguez returns as Luz, who was shot in the eye in the first film and miraculously survived as a result of being hilariously indestructible.  There, it worked.  Here, she’s shot in the other eye and becomes totally blind.  As funny as her continued invulnerability is, in theory (she’s still able to overcome her opponent without sight, and without caring much about the fact that she cannot see), it’s a bit of a bummer to see it happen, especially after the director’s heavily sound-bited insistence that he loves “strong women” (there’s that dangerous adjective again).  Amber Heard plays the turncoat handler Miss San Antonio, who acts as Luz’s foil.  I won’t spoil whether she gets shot in the face, but you can guess.

The story this time follows Machete as he is hired by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) to investigate Mexican revolutionary Mendez (Demián Bichir), who plans on launching a rocket at Washington, D.C.  Through one thing and another, Machete uncovers a conspiracy led by arms dealer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson): Voz has seen a vision in which the world is destroyed and everyone must move to space.  To expedite the process, Voz has installed a proverbial Mendez in every country, planning to launch several of these missiles at key locations all over the globe.  He wants to recruit Machete as part of the special group who will go to space with him, but our stoic hero wants no part of it (especially once he sees the collection of luchador masks in Voz’s headquarters).

Performances, again, are what hold this film together, especially when it feels like every actor understands the tongue-in-cheekness and the nuance.  Heard is a gem as Miss San Antonio.  Even Mel Gibson seems to get the joke.  In the film’s best stretch of subplot, a bounty is placed on the heads of Machete and Mendez, who are then hunted by a collection of colorful ne’er-do-wells.  These include a maniacal sheriff played by William Sadler, a vengeful cop played by Julio Oscar Mechoso, and a faceless/genderless bounty hunter called El Camaleón, played by four actors: Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas.  It’s an ambitious idea and a very good string of scenes (especially when Banderas speaks deliberately bad Spanish with a forced Mexican accent), and may have been one of the most interesting film villains of any age, if not for the throwaway joke that brings the character to a narrative dead-end.

Two films, in any series, are enough for me.  When you plan on doing more than two, you enfranchise the series.  Franchises are bad.  They exist to fatten pockets and egos and stomachs and the shelves of people who collect mindless crap.  When it’s a film series, the second one is often an incoherent celluloid goo that merely connects the two important films.  If Rodriguez really intends to do a third Machete (which, if we’re going to believe what this film promises, will take place in outer space and feature Trejo, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Rodriguez with one of her eyes back, Alexa Vega, Mel Gibson, and Sofia Vergara), it’s going to require a lot more thought.  Either that, or it will be just plain non-ironically bad.

ImageMachete Kills (2013); written by Kyle Ward; directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Danny Trejo, Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, Demián Bichir, and Mel Gibson.  

Machete

Introducing Don Johnson

A few years back, Robert Rodriguez directed a hilarious trailer advertising an imaginary exploitation film featuring Danny Trejo as a grizzled Mexican action hero who “gets the women and kills the bad guys.”  In proper step with films of the type, the trailer gave away virtually everything that happened in the movie.

With one thing and another, that trailer is now a full-length film.  Danny Trejo, 66 years old, plays the title character: a Mexican ex-federale with a penchant for sharp objects and various vendettas which develop over the course of the story.

Rodriguez delivers on the  promise of the trailer.  Some of the scenes were re-shot, some actors recast and some sections removed in order to tell the full story, but the spirit is there.  The premise is absurd and the illegal immigrant laws being the main driving force behind the narrative is a simple-yet-effective red herring for the wanton violence that accompanies it.

While Stallone’s The Expendables had one of the most impressive action casts we’ve seen, Machete has possibly the single weirdest cast in film history.  Oddly enough, the players fit into their parts perfectly, and the ensemble is spread thinly enough over the screenplay that it doesn’t seem like just a bunch of cool actors hanging out together in a Rodriguez movie.  The cast includes Trejo in the lead, as well as Robert De Niro as Senator McLaughlin, a politician with a cowboy hat and a fake Southern accent who seems to be vehemently against illegal immigrants (“terrorists” as he calls them); Jeff Fahey as Michael Booth, the Senator’s adviser and the main conspirator that gets Machete’s revenge mission going; Cheech Marin as Padre’, Machete’s brother, a shotgun-wielding priest; Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, the leader of an underground movement of Mexican renegades fighting for what is right; Jessica Alba as Sartana, a half-Mexican immigrations officer debating whose side she should be on; the immortal Don Johnson as Von Jackson, the evil leader of a group of “border vigilantes” (good-ol’-boys who gun down any Mexicans crossing the border); Lindsay Lohan as April, Booth’s daughter, a socialite who later becomes a “nun with a gun” to exact her revenge on De Niro; Tom Savini as Osiris Amanpour, a hitman who advertises his services via 1-800-HITMAN; and perhaps most significant of all, Steven Seagal in his first big-screen appearance in ten years – he plays Torrez, a Mexican drug lord who serves as the film’s central villain.  Not only is he on the screen again, but he’s a bad guy, and not only is he a bad guy, but he’s battling a heroic Danny Trejo, who would surely be a throwaway henchman in any of Seagal’s career-vehicle films.

Refreshingly, Rodriguez takes many of these actors out of their usual element: De Niro as a conservative political animal, the lovable Fahey as a monstrous conspirator, Seagal and Johnson as baddies, and so on.  There are also several references to Rodriguez’s older films, specifically in the latter third of the film when Trejo dons the same outfit he wears in 1995’s Desperado, including the infamous throwing knives, as well as a shot in which Trejo leaps atop a limousine to slay the people inside.

The film begins to border parody after awhile, and the shootout in the end has a bit more potential (and buildup) than is delivered, but Rodriguez is a bit more responsible with his writing – he still can’t name characters well and he still occasionally kills off characters immediately when they’re not needed in the plot, but he’s getting better.  Overall, the film is extremely enjoyable and for the most part stays within the conventions of the genre.  Trejo, 66, with lines in his face as deep as any open-ocean trench, hooks up with all three of the film’s leading women on separate occasions (and once, two at a time when April’s mother is involved).  There are one-liners galore which I won’t spoil here, and while there is a solid ending, there’s the inevitable cash-in sequel hook – “Machete will return in MACHETE KILLS…and again, in MACHETE KILLS AGAIN!” – though I assume Rodriguez won’t actually be making those pictures.

Confusion came to me in the form of a fake trailer by Quentin Tarantino entitled “Agent Orange.”  The confusion occurred because the trailer wasn’t there, despite its hype, and there seems to be no information left about it on the entirety of the internet.  I’m willing to believe it was just a rumor, but it seemed almost too specific in its cast and premise to be completely made up.  Regardless, this takes nothing away from the movie.  Get out to see it.

Machete (2010); written and directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez and Jeff Fahey.

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