31 October 2013

First Impressions: Machete Kills

Now, you wouldn't think that anyone would be talking about Machete Kills (2013) three weeks after its release.

Don't worry, this won't take long. Plenty of SPOILERS to come, though, because, why not?
Half of the two best parts dies halfway through
the film without any resolution. Guess which one?

Machete Kills somehow does the impossible - ruin the Machete franchise. Did Machete have a franchise? It at least finally wears the premise too thin to escape enjoyment. With a premise that has always been purposefully horrible and outrageous, that's a tough achievement. Machete (2010) was born from one of the fake trailers from Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse (2007). I'll contend that even if the cinematic experiment of Grindhouse never really caught on, 1) It wasn't supposed to - these are honouring crummy schlock after all, and 2) Planet Terror rules and Death Proof is a pretty sly slasher subversion when it can get past its drawn out dialogue scenes.

Some one somewhere thought that Machete was a good idea. As I said in my impressions of that flick all the way back in 2010, the flick had an incredible amount of fun with itself, a dream cast, and actually latched on to some significant political ideas, even if it smothered it with gratuitous campy sex and violence. Machete Kills echoes the cast to die for - Cuba, Mel, GaGa, Sheen for starters - and explodes with even crazier sex and violence. Despite this, I enjoyed the film a whole lot less. Why?

It's the question that bugged me. Did Machete find the perfect balance of camp to make a bad film worth watching that Machete Kills went overboard on? Did going into space ruin the rules for its universe the same way that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) did for Indiana Jones? I think it comes down to some very simple differences. Machete is bonkers, but it still has a consistent plot, even if what the characters actually do is crazy. Machete Kills starts with an interesting plot, literally kills it halfway through, and then starts an entirely new film. The flick bookends itself with supposed scenes from Machete Kills...in Space! (2016), but in reality, this film is both Machete Kills and Machete Kills...in Space! In fact, despite this dual nature, the film still just sort of ends, as if Robert Rodriguez said to himself "Well, that's enough silliness for today. Let's pick this up again in a few years." The abruptness of it all is almost an admission that the flick is merely a bunch of craziness that just happened, more a glimpse of an average day in the life of Danny Trejo's Machete than an actual movie. It falls apart.

The whole thing reeks far more like a B-movie than Machete. That's really a sentence I never thought I'd write. While the first film anchored itself in real issues like illegal immigration and evil politico-racial conspiracies, Machete Kills consciously avoids anything to ground its silliness. Does this make it a purer "grindhouse" exploitation film? Probably, but who actually wants to see that? There can be some postmodern appreciation for a film filled with strange and sexual violence for the sake of itself, but the end result is a bit of a hollow movie.

I will welcome the sight of Lady GaGa in many more mexploitation movies to come.

Now, all that being said, there was plenty to enjoy about this film. The most memorable performance may come from Demian Bichir (A Better Life [2011], FX's The Bridge), whose half evil / half honorable schizophrenic Marcos Mendez seems to drive the film into a clever spin on the buddy cop genre, where the eponymous Machete is paired with both the villain and sidekick of the film. It's an enjoyable trip that leads to one of the best machete chopping scenes - when Trejo swings on helicopter blades, mowing down henchman after henchman in bloody glory. Then Mendez is unceremoniously killed, and Mel Gibson storms into the film, chewing scenery as a space age tech genius.

The film almost immediately derails, to no real fault of Gibson, who is nearly as enjoyable if not as original or clever as Bichir was. He does eventually become a far better Dr. Doom than Julian McMahon. From then on it's a space opera, with people being turned inside-out (although there's a pretty good gag where a gun is pointed at Machete and he just turns and leaves the room), rocketships full of true Movementarian-esque believers blasting off into space, and Michelle Rodriguez loses another eye.
Hey! Boobs!

On that note, this film is full of both boobs and women in fridges. Every girl Machete gets close to dies, which only fuels his endless rage. Is it a commentary on the many fallen femmes of James Bond and just about every tortured white male protagonist in Christopher Nolan films? If it's a sly commentary, it gets lost without an articulated criticism while reveling in its own camp.

Rounding out the cast that did a particularly exceptional job include the introduction of Carlos Estevez, who is of course the President in this world, although he isn't given as much to work with as either Gibson or Bichir. Cuba Gooding, Jr actually does a fantastic job as a weary chameleon-like assassin, until he's quickly replaced by Lady GaGa. Then Antonio Banderas. It's not that great of a twist that four of the biggest names (including Walter Goggins) attached to this thing turned out to be playing the same character. As a result, none of the four are given enough enjoyable screentime, although in an already overstuffed movie, that may be a good thing.

Finally, we've got Trejo. I'm glad that the former prison boxer is able to have this career pinnacle at age 69. Seriously - I'm trying to say that without sounding snide at all - it's tough. Trejo is that old, it's insane. He's also perfect in this role at the culmination of a long difficult life. He's also really ugly as all sin, which makes the flick that much more enjoyable.

So what's the final word on Machete Kills? It's pretty awful. Awful in an awful way. There were plenty of fun moments and Bichir is a hoot, but it just picks up and drops too many plot points like bread crumbs to be a good movie or even a good bad movie. At the end, there isn't all that much that works here.

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