Eschewing the straight-laced (and sadly often boring) grindhouse aesthetic of its predecessor, Machete Kills dives headlong into off-the-wall comedy like it probably should have done in the first place. It’s still way too long and the energy considerably flags towards the conclusion, but at least the laughs are fairly consistent throughout and there’s hardly anything that can be called a lull in the action and gags. In many ways, much like all of Rodriguez’s work, it’s just too much of a good thing. Here, that’s a moderate positive.
Former Mexican Federale, ex-CIA agent, Spy Kids cameo player, world class lover, and all around badass Machete (Danny Trejo) gets rescued from a hellish fate and an existential crisis over losing the only partner he ever cared about by a call from the president of the United States (Carlos Estevez, a.k.a. Charlie Sheen). Turns out a former deep cover agent turned schizophrenic cartel kingpin and batshit crazy freedom fighter (Demian Bichir) has a nuclear missile not only aimed at the United States, but has had the detonator wired to his heart Tony Stark style. Machete is tasked with the unenviable mission of sneaking into Mexico, and bringing the madman back to the US illegally to find the only scientist mad enough to create such a device (Mel Gibson) in hopes of defusing it. Along the way a hefty bounty is placed on both their heads, making Machete’s work really only a hair more difficult than it was before. Because he’s Machete. And he probably can’t be killed.
Aside from a rocky start, which I will get to in a moment, Machete earns a ton of good will from the cast Rodriguez has assembled this time out. They bring the energy, tone, and general good natured silliness that this material needs to succeed. Trejo is just as purposefully one-note and gruff as ever, but instead of always making him actively participate in tired, ludicrous situations, there’s actual a lot more careful thought this time about how Machete would or wouldn’t react.
But as evidenced from the last film, Machete is only as good of a hero as the characters around him are plum loco. Instead of tired, posturing tough guys, everyone here is the broadest possible caricature and swinging for the fences in terms of camping it up. Amber Heard has fun vamping it up and kicking some ass as Machete’s quite often long distance beauty queen handler. Michele Rodriguez returns as a one eyed wrecking crew and leader of the Mexican underground, who once again bails our hero out while constantly giving him shit about it. Sheen is doing his usual “larger than life and still winning” routine, but it shockingly makes for a great president. A cadre of five different, and all very funny, actors play the same master of disguise hitman-slash-bounty hunter. It’s a completely superfluous and shoehorned character that serves almost zero actual purpose, but it’s still too funny a gag to really spoil for viewers willing to go into the film cold.
But the film predominantly belongs to the main villains, and here is where it gets incredibly difficult to talk about the film’s overall shortcomings without spoiling anything. The rough start I was talking about off the top refers to a strange grindhouse technique that gives away the ending of Machete Kills in the first few seconds. The problem with that, is how Rodriguez spends the entire final hour of the film almost agonizingly dancing around and drawing out the ending we all know is coming. Instead of putting Machete around a bunch of dull characters, Rodriguez kind of shoots himself in the foot this time out by giving him a plot that actually feels over thought. Given the choice between the two, however, this seems preferable.
Gibson does a fine enough job as a bizarrely sci-fi obsessed scientist (and clairvoyant) who wears his influences on his sleeve and his dark secrets made known through thousand yard stares and hilarious musical cues. He’s appropriate levels of crazy, but his character inhabits only the second half of the film where Rodriguez has kind of undercut the character’s motivation and sense of surprise already. It almost does him a disservice.
Bechir, on the other hand, positively kills it as one of the best villains in a film this year. He’s positively bonkers, vacillating wildly from a man who would kill the woman he loves one second to a remorseful sad sack who wants to kill himself for what he did the next. His performance embodies the pitch perfect level of crazy Rodriguez is striving for, and the movie roars to gleefully misanthropic and joyously depraved life whenever he’s on screen. But again, it’s a shame that his character only really commands the half of the film that doesn’t feature Gibson.
Rodriguez seems to think he’s doing some sort of fan service with these Machete films, but he’s really only pleasing himself with them. That’s not inherently a bad thing. It’s how most filmmakers operate, but this time out he’s not working with a co-director or a major studio, making things feel at least a bit more even keeled. Still, there’s no reason on this or any other planet for Machete Kills to be 107 minutes long. It’s quite a lot at half the length, and my best advice to anyone really wanting to enjoy the film is to trust me and walk in about 5 minutes late. Skip the opening and the second half of the film will probably play better if you don’t see the beginning. If you’re on time, though, you’ll still probably forgive it.
(Random side note: It’s cool that Rodriguez extends his DIY ethics to the visual effects in his movies, but the almost exclusively CGI gore on display here is distressingly crappy and might take some hardcore fans out of the fun.)
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