[11 October 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Guillermo Del Toro is often considered the king of the geeks, the movie maven most in touch with what post-modern genre fans dig. Quentin Tarantino holds a similar place, though his reach goes so much deeper into film that some are intimidated, or just angry, at his Award winning capabilities. And then there is Robert Rodriguez, the cinematic stepchild of these far more successful peers. At one time, he too was considered a up and coming auteur, movies like El Mariachi and its big budget better (?),Desperado, arguing for a new viable voice in indie action. Then…something strange happened. Rodriguez got sidetracked, turning into an attempted jack-of-all-movie-trades, while mastering few. He went the family film route (the Spy Kids franchise), horror (The Faculty, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn), and crime/noir (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City).
Then somewhere along the line he became convinced he understood the exploitation era and its wealth of taboo busting titles, and along with his pal Tarantino, he contributed to the fun if misguided Grindhouse. His feature, Planet Terror, was nothing more than an exaggerated horror romp. The only thing connecting it to the intended double feature throwback was…the title. He also contributed a preview for something called Machete, a supposedly lost action epic starring Danny Trejo as an “ass kicking Mexican.” While the fake trailer was filled with goofball gratuity, it wasn’t enough for Rodriguez. Responding to fan interest (always a flawed place to start from), he turned Machete into an actual feature film, one that, sadly, didn’t love up to the coming attraction’s perverse promise.
Now, he’s returned with Machete Kills, and while still as scattered as the first film, at least Rodriguez understands where his dubious strengths lie. Forty years ago, we would have called his creative concept a 14-year-old alienated teen’s notebook scribblings, a collection of hyper-stylized concepts meant to mimic an adolescent’s ongoing struggles with a whole new world of sex, violence, triumphs, and tragedies…and what he or she thought was COOOOOL! Today, we’d call this a nerdgasm, a strange subculture of selections from a home video junkie’s Jones list. Since the advent of the VCR and its twisted sister, the Betamax, the availability of film as a function of everyday life has created a community of obsessives, each one more convinced of their own knowledge of the artform. From martial arts to the macabre, softcore sexploitation to unusual foreign freak outs, it’s this understanding that Rodriguez is currently cultivating.
The result of Machete Kills is made up of moments, of memorable sequences that have little or no narrative drive to keep them connected. It’s still fun in a getting-drunk-off-the-forbidden-aperitifs-in-Dad’s-liquor-cabinet kind of way , but you still get a stinking hangover when all is said and done. The story (not that it’s all that important) sees Machete, once again played with craggy faced ferocity by Trejo, trying to take down a Mexican revolutionary named Mendez (Demián Bichir) who is plagued by multiple personality disorder. Seems his noble side wants the US to help him bring down the cartels, and since the President (Charlie Sheen) won’t budge, his crazy side will use a nuclear missile aimed at Washington to help our Commander in Chief make a decision. Turns out, this is all the doing of an equally insane arms dealer named Luther Voz (a magically maniacal Mel Gibson) who believes the end of the world is upon us.
For their part, the drug dealers don’t want Machete to succeed, so they send out their premiere assassin, El Camaleon, to do their dirty work. This is one of Rodriguez’s most brilliant, and frustrating, inventions. The character is played by Walton Coggins, then Cuba Gooding Jr. , then Lady Gaga, and finally, Antonio Banderas. In fact, a whole film could be…built…around…this…chara - forget I said this. Anyway, with El Camaleon hot on his trail and a desperate desire to get into Mexico, kidnap Mendez, and get him across the border, our hero needs some help. His Black Ops handler, Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard) provides support, as does Machete old friend Luz (Michele Rodriguez). Once they manage to confront Voz, however, things go from strange to downright surreal.
The moment we see Gibson in his element, full of beans and blasting away at Kyle Ward’s crazed dialogue, Machete Kills becomes the certified guilty pleasure it’s spent the last 45 minutes trying to be. It blossoms into the kind of movie Rodriguez has been wanting to make ever since he stuck an automatic weapon on the end of Rose McGowen’s leg stump. Instead of measuring out his kooky cult moments in drips and drabs (Machete overturns a speed boat to use the propellers as weapons, he disembowels a man and then uses the entrails as a way to destroy him), the last 50 minutes are blissfully bizarre. There is one big point of reference here (something alluded to at the start of the movie) and we won’t spoil it here. Needless to say, it sets up a possible trequel where everything he hoped the Machete franchise could be would pay off in laser beams and carboni…that’s enough.
It’s also at this point where the movie overloads into full blown nerdgasm mode. Even a crusty old critic like yours truly, cynical beyond belief and eager to shoot down someone taking such preconceived pot shots at our expectations couldn’t help but smile once Gibson and his plan goes gonzo. It’s like luxuriating in your first kiss, or your first KISS concert. It’s every teen’s dream, like having Neil Peart come to your house and teach your drums while a porn star models bikinis for you and some members of the WWE. It’s Sophia Vergara as a scenery chewing, man hating Madame who wears a bra made out of machine guns. It’s her prostitute compatriots kicking butt while wearing ass-less chaps. It’s Lady Gaga dropping the F-bomb, or a sex scene shot in an incomprehensible (and therefore, safe) psychedelic 3D. Rodriguez could care less if he’s making a movie that holds together as a thriller, or a noir, or a low brow comedy. He’s just in it for the money shots, and Machete Kills is almost all money shots.
Maybe one day Robert Rodriguez will find a way to satisfy both his inner dork and the medium’s needs. Until then, he will always sit somewhere below his better received brothers. Machete Kills is no masterpiece, but it’s not an embarrassment either. When it works, it’s a wonder. When it doesn’t, it’s easy to see why.