Friday, October 11, 2013

Needs Sharpening: MACHETE KILLS

With Robert Rodriguez, there’s never a question of authenticity in his pulpy prefabricated cult films. He’s a filmmaker following his passions and interests, which largely sit squarely within a desire to reconstitute comic books, B-movies, and exploitation pictures in a variety of partially-postmodern configurations. At his best, he doesn’t just borrow from iconic and disreputable genre ideas and finds a way to create some honest iconic moments of his own, images that stick in the brain long after context starts to fade. I’m thinking of the opening rival-spies-in-love montage of Spy Kids (his greatest), Johnny Depp’s bleeding eyes partially hidden behind sunglasses in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Laura Harris soon to stalk out of the skin she’s showing off to reveal her otherworldliness in The Faculty. His best movies are movie movies, pure playful pleasure.

That’s what made Machete, the 2010 expansion of a spoof trailer from his Grindhouse collaboration with Tarantino, enjoyable. Its clever blend of button-pushing political commentary and bloody Tex-Mexploitation action swirled around a stoic performance from craggy tough guy character actor Danny Trejo as the eponymous ex-federale defender and protector of underdogs everywhere. The movie was knowing without being too knowing, laugh-out-loud exciting, not because of faux-shoddiness, but through sheer force of earnest silliness. You could never accuse Rodriguez of being above cartoony violent gags. I still smile when I recall the sequence that found a baddie stabbed with a meat thermometer, a funny enough moment that becomes even better when the building explodes and the man’s corpse flies into frame, the thermometer still in place, now reading “Well Done.”

Rodriguez is always having fun. The question is whether the audience gets to have the fun with him. In the case of Machete Kills, there’s not a single moment as enjoyable or memorable as what happened to that meat thermometer. It’s a movie that’s content to run its gory gags into the ground. I mean, you’ve seen one guy get sucked up into the propellers of a helicopter or boat engine, you’ve seen them all. One is a shock. A dozen is quite literally overkill. The deliberately silly sequel finds Machete recruited by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen, credited here under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) to track down Mendez (Demian Bichir), a Mexican madman. This mastermind wants the U.S.A. to invade Mexico with the goal of cleaning up the drug cartels and thinks threatening to launch a missile towards Washington D.C. will help make up the President’s mind. Not while Machete is an option.

The convoluted plot soon involves a motley and intriguing cast made up of Oscar winners and nominees, disgraced celebrities, a sitcom actress, former child actors, and a pop star. Amber Heard plays Miss San Antonio, who is secretly a federal agent assigned to be Machete’s handler on this mission. On his way to find Mendez, he runs across a brothel filled with militant prostitutes (led by Alexa Vega, a dozen years ago a co-star of Spy Kids) under the direction of a madam (Modern Family’s Sofía Vergara) who takes the term maneater uncomfortably literally. Her daughter (Vanessa Hudgens) supposedly knows how to find Mendez. Complications arise, and soon a string of assassins (killer cameos for Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Lady Gaga) and a villainous weapons tycoon (Mel Gibson) want a piece of Machete too. Eventually Michelle Rodriguez, returning from the first film with her army of underground justice-seeking Mexicans, rolls into the picture as well.

It’s all fairly self-involved as it largely ditches the sociopolitical digs of the first film for adolescent snickering, repeating gags over and over with diminishing returns and otherwise overstaying its welcome. The balance is all off, running through CGI viscera repetitively splattered, twisting around without much momentum, and picking up a nasty habit of offing its female characters with little thought the instant the plot is done with them. This is a movie that thinks a machine gun bra is the height of humor and then proceeds to go no further. It’s worth a smirk, but not much else, especially when the whole movie plays out like one half-baked idea after the next. I bet screenwriter Kyle Ward (working from a story from Rodriguez) thought they seemed funny at the time.

And yet, as exasperating and only fleetingly entertaining as I found Machete Kills, Trejo doesn’t overplay his hand. Machete remains a great pulpy character, tough and no-nonsense, ready to get the job done. Even as the film grows unsatisfying around him, he’s a steady presence that keeps things from falling apart entirely. The movie doesn’t end so much as stop, a series of faux-advertisements promising that Machete will return in Machete Kills Again…In Space! These clips from an as-yet-unmade film, a groovy sci-fi shoot-‘em-up with late-70’s Roger Corman-style effects, are the best part of the very real movie you have to sit through to see them. Now that looks like fun. Maybe Machete Kills is too much of the same thing. I’m ready to launch with Trejo and Rodriguez into the stratosphere and they’re stuck retreading the same old ground.

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