The Affleck to his Damon, the yin to a more successful yang, Robert Rodriguez is the Bizarro version of Quentin Tarantino. Both of them trapped forever into replaying and remaking the movies they saw during very impressionable teenage years, these grown men have covered both perspectives of Hollywood glory, Tarantino with his Oscars and wet Weinstein fellatios, and Rodriguez with his endless amount of homegrown franchises (El Mariachi, Spy Kids, and now Machete Kills). The two crossed paths in Grindhouse, but Tarantino would later go on to make last year's raucous blaxploitation western Django Unchained (which is soon to be embarrassed by the great 12 Years a Slave), a declaration that the writer-director could take his Grindhouse to whatever time or place that he chose.
Don’t let Rodriguez’s three Spy Kids sequels fool you, as such freedom has also always been available to this Mexican director as well. He ain't no stranger to funky casting, stinky cheese dialogue, and shameless bastardizations of the word “homage.” With Machete Kills, he's got all that and more, complete with the winks to Moonraker and Star Wars, he has created the "Mexploitation" movie that he never got to see growing up.
This sequel to 2010’s Machete (which featured Robert De Niro and Steven Seagal) has the grime of Grindhouse washing away, but the nutty jumble of plot is still very much a thing. Super-man Machete (Danny Trejo) is hired by the POTUS (Charlie Sheen, credited as Carlos Estevez) to stop a rocket from being fired at America by schizophrenic radical Mendez (Demian Bechir). He receives assistance from Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard). When Machete finds out that the rocket is connected to Mendez's heart through a special device, he has to bring Mendez to the piece's originator, a scheming super-genius named Voz (Mel Gibson). Along the way, Machete is trailed by a group of gun-toting prostitutes led by Desdemona (Sofia Vergara), and a disguise-wearing assassin (Walt Goggins, among others).
Rhymed by the dead silence he earns for his new dud "Machete don't ... " catchphrase additions, the character Machete is a trailer-long joke whose amusement has doubly passed. Trejo's acting is upstaged by the excessive wear-and-tear on his face (the dude was in prison before he became an actor!), regardless as to the size of the title weapon that he swings like a tree limb blowing in the wind.
It's not very often that title heroes are of the lesser audience interest. Rodriguez recognizes this phenomenon by showing off some stunt work from a casting director whose work goes uncredited in both the film's press notes and on IMDb.
Some relief is found in Demian Bechir, a talented actor who provides the necessary charisma needed for most of the film, as the script requires him to create a charismatic force with Machete in every scene until he is out of the picture. As for the smoother choices within Rodriguez’s latest playtime, the casting of a wide-eyed Mel Gibson is one of them. Guilty of expository dialogue reserved for James Bond villains, Gibson does well in dry delivery and a refreshing lack of self-seriousness. With a few extra screws loosened to a twinkle in his eye, Gibson exposits things like, "I turned science fiction into science reality!"
Keeping his story busy with its cast, Rodriguez has no problem accommodating small parts, catering to the presence of whomever he can throw into the mix, regardless of the damage it might have to story or pacing. Antonio Banderas, for example, gets five minutes to dick around before dropping out. Sofia Vergara gets her own useless and disturbing monologue, which builds her pulpy seductress to no established end. Rodriguez’s former Spy Kid Alexa Vega shows up, she doesn’t do much. Lady Gaga makes her first big screen appearance, and it’s all to hold a gun in a certain way, playing a character engineered to create cameos, which then leads to star power. This movie is like Lee Daniels’ The Butler if there was a scene in which Oprah Winfrey said, “It takes a bitch to make a bitch, and I smell fish taco.”
With due regards to the crazier shit that happens in this movie, often involving our concrete slab hero cutting people’s heads off, Machete Kills does benefit from trying to redeem the type of mad-cappery that Crank borrowed from Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time in Mexico: All the characters can survive the worst violence if the mighty script needs them alive. With this endlessness in place, the violence in Machete Kills is more joke than spectacle, which only goes so far. How many times can helicopter blades kill bad guys before it’s old hat?
In the midst of turning numerous stars into wannabe action figures, Rodriguez continues his hot-button mash-ups on the subjects of women, weapons, and border control, all of which compel him but none of which inspire toward a cohesive thought. Oh, you’re showing us women that are empowered because they become men, literally, with gun dicks? Oh, there's a giant wall between the U.S. and Mexico that is pushing everyone? Ok.
Rodriguez achieves the same uselessness with his dialogue, often too weak in its ironic desires to be goofy goodness. “Machete don’t Tweet” is playing pop culture Mad Libs with your own joke (a Justin Bieber joke is so puny you’d think Seltzer/Freidberg wrote it). Also, having someone say “the blind leading the blind” after disabling their eye is just lazy awfulness.
Similar to watching Tarantino's weaker moments, it is Rodriguez who is the most curious star here. Your eyes will always be on his unseen hand as you witness Machete Kills load up on a cast that doesn't have much to work with, parade around a character actor in a lead role that offers for weak action, and hint at a more intriguing sequel that hasn't been made yet, but perhaps will be…one day. Yet with enough surprises popping up throughout, Machete Kills is apt for its low, 2am standards. Enabled by his the director’s own Rodriguez Unchained freewill, this movie runs amok within itself, usually trying too little to actually be bad.
Den of Geek Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars