Silver Screen: Machete Kills **1/2
¡Senal de alerta arruinar!: Machete Kills closes with a fake trailer for a potential third Machete movie, the existence of which likely depends on how much money Kills makes. The fake trailer is far and away the single best minute of the whole enterprise, stuffing a series of outlandish ideas into a compressed timeline, with a shaky, grainy visual aesthetic that mimics the drive-in classics and exploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s.
So why, then, doesn’t the rest of the movie follow its example? Machete is cheap-looking, sure, and intentionally so, but more in the hasty way of an after-school special than grindhouse pulp. It certainly isn’t short, with a running time of more than an hour-and-forty-five minutes, and though it has a few suitably outlandish ideas, they’re spread too thin. More often, director Robert Rodriguez seizes on a clunky gag (Sofia Vergara wearing a bikini with nipple guns and a strap-on cannon!) and beats it like un caballo muerto.
The plucky director Rodriguez created Machete as a fake trailer in Grindhouse, his woefully underrated double feature with Quentin Tarantino. Rodriguez’s Grindhouse feature, the hilarious and lurid Planet Terror, maintained that beat-to-hell seventies film-stock look throughout. The Machete trailer was a one-gag interstitial piece in which Rodriguez reimagined blaxploitation classics like Shaft and Superfly with a south-of-the-border bent.
The eventual result was 2010’s Machete, a full-length hybrid Mexploitation movie that suffered the same fate as the first half of the new sequel, Machete Kills. In between a few clever wink-and-nudge gags and frequent flurries of pseudo-comic violence, the film dragged through labored stretches of setup and plot tangents that served no real function, and the whole lumbering enterprise looked like an Urban Outfitters knockoff of a pop-culture antique-- prepackaged irony, but without the commitment and love that gave Grindhouse its twisted soul.
Danny Trejo returns as the blade-wielding hombre of few words, who lives in a kind of fevered fantasyland America where that enormous, fortified wall along the border really did get built. The United States’ first Mexican American president (Charlie Sheen, billed as Carlos Estevez) enlists Machete to help track down Mendez (Demián Bichir), a ruthless cartel leader who has a nuclear missile aimed at Washington, D.C., in an effort to turn the countries against one another. But his own investigation leads Machete to discover that Mendez is actually an undercover agent who’s become lost in his secret identity, and that the real conspiracy leads back to an eccentric weapons manufacturer named Voz (Mel Gibson).
Machete Kills picks up some steam during the back half when it takes a wonderfully surreal turn. In some unfortunately unexplained phenomenon that Voz only refers to as “the Incident,” the evil billionaire gained pre-cognitive powers that allowed him to design futuristic weapons and his own space station. The sci-fi elements make a bizarre but pleasing pairing with Machete’s heretofore low-fi antics-- it’s an old guy with a big knife fighting thugs wielding laser guns. It’s exactly the kind of next-level weirdness the Machete movies seemed to promise without ever delivering.
Character actor Trejo is subdued, glowering fun as the title character, but Machete Kills is really a showcase for the ensemble actors, most of whom get only a couple of scenes. Bichir is hilarious, Gibson’s still-extant charm and probably real wild-eyed craziness make him a fantastic villain, Sheen is a hoot as the president working in “the Southwest Wing,” and the mysterious (and totally unnecessary) character El Camaleón is played in turn by Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Lady Gaga.
If a third film can maintain the full-tilt zaniness of those last forty or so minutes of Machete Kills, I say bring on Machete Kills... In Space. Or at least a solid five-minute highlight reel.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.