There was a time when Robert Rodriguez seemed like the modern embodiment of the grindhouse spirit. His first film, El Mariachi, was made for just $7,000 dollars. In lieu of the production values typically associated with action cinema, Rodriguez provided a really kinetic, violent experience that seemed livelier and crazier than what the mainstream was delivering at the time. Times change, however. Now Rodriguez is faced with no such limitations. And that actually seems to hurt Machete Kills.
Ex-Federale Machete (Danny Trejo) is mourning the loss of his partner Sartana (Jessica Alba) at the hands of some masked men. The president (Charlie Sheen) calls Machete in to give him a mission: to eliminate Marcos Mendez (Demian Bichir), a self-described Mexican revolutionary who is threatening to fire a nuclear weapon at Washington DC. Machete drops into Acapulco and almost immediately lands into trouble. Things escalate, until Machete finds himself having to keep his target alive while fending off the attacks of some of the world’s deadliest killers.
The thing about grindhouse is that it’s really about filmmakers trying to overcome having limited resources. Machete Kills seems to go the opposite way. It uses its copious resources to intentionally craft a bad movie. That’s the entire joke: exploitation films were bad, so this film is bad. It’s a wrongheaded approach for making any sort of feature film. It feels disingenuous, and it comes off as terribly lazy. The film is just a stream-of-consciousness joke of awfulness that serves as an excuse to feature a bunch of surprise cameos.
The film is long on meta gags but short on any of the charm that made grindhouse films so compelling. The thing is Rodriguez shows no real particular love for the films that Machete Kills supposedly emulates. And that lack of connection is palpable throughout the entire narrative. Given far more resources than he actually needs, Rodriguez takes the easiest path to just getting a movie out there. And that involves shoddy computer generated effects, and a story that doesn’t try to make sense or offer up any emotional stakes.
What fun makes it into the film is largely due to the enthusiasm of the supporting actors. Danny Trejo just looks tired as Machete, the actor unable to muster up the same deranged energy he brought to the role in the first installment. But that lack of energy is more than compensated for with the likes of Amber Heard, Sofia Vergara, Demian Bichir, Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Mel Gibson. Gibson looks to be having plenty of fun channeling his best bond villain. Bichir taps into a manic energy that sustains all of his scenes. And Sofia Vergara is a perfect fit for the grindhouse conceit.
Machete Kills is one joke stretched out over 100 minutes. Rodriguez’s recent forays under that grindhouse umbrella have taken that same shape. And it’s getting increasingly disheartening. This was once a filmmaker who poured his heart and soul into his works, overcoming all sorts of production obstacles through sheer ingenuity. Now, he seems to have grown complacent, taking for granted the vast influence and access to resources that success has brought him. As with any long joke, bits of the movie are still funny. But at some point, you just realize that it isn’t really going anywhere.