The 2010 Robert Rodriguez film Machete quenched an audience thirst for mindless violent entertainment that began during Grindhouse, the 2007 double feature that Rodriguez split with fellow director Quentin Tarantino. Among the intermission reel of trailers for movies that did not exist beyond their previews, the resounding consensus was that Danny Trejo should be the vessel through which a full-length romp should be delivered.
Not exactly a reprisal of his knife-wielding Navajas (translation: knives) character from Desperado, the similarities between Navajas and Machete end at the choice of murder weapon. Machete, in contrast to Bucho’s assassin, seems like an extension of the persona that Danny Trejo projects: a hardened Latino who chooses to save lives although he could take them just as capably. Trejo’s very public stance on helping people creates an intriguing balance with the ultraviolent, morally anemic environment in which he thrives onscreen, a balance that welcomes the depth Trejo gave the role of Machete the first time around.
Alas, Machete Kills betrays the audience’s interest in how Machete evolves in his battle against all odds, instead opting for more explosions and bloodshed and less nudity (?!). And although the gratuitous amount of A-to-D-list talent adds a layer of fun rarely seen in the action genre, it undermines the importance of Machete’s evolution in keeping the series viable.
Machete Kills illustrates the stark limitations of relying on heightened spectacle to fuel a franchise. Admittedly, the explosions, gore, and eye candy were impressive. However, the feature appearances were less satisfying than the original barrage (Robert Deniro, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, and Jessica Alba, and Jeff Fahey), and the story was inventive to the extent of carelessness rather than a crafty homage to a bygone subgenre.
Still, despite Kyle Ward’s not-quite-there-yet script, the individual performances are exceptional. Sofia Vergara’s mentally unstable bordello owner Desdemona came right out of her wheelhouse to satisfying effect. Amber Heard’s Miss San Antonio showed that pageant queens and ass kickers are not mutually exclusive. And as Mendez, Demian Bichir made a walking time bomb with multiple personalities more fun than the story deserved. The entire cast deserves praise and could have opposed Machete well in separate installments. Instead, the volume of performances exposed the plot as the greatest flaw of the movie (ugh, flashbacks of Spider-Man 3).
In committing to a messy plot and showcasing a range of talent that also included Cuba Gooding, Jr., Walton Goggins, and Lady Gaga, Rodriguez treats Machete’s character arc as less of a priority. The parallel storylines that make Machete predator and prey at the same time somehow fail to match the stakes to which the characters pay lip service. For instance, the multi-pronged terrorist threat that Machete is charged to diffuse is too unwieldy to both serve Machete’s stoic demeanor and entertain an audience; expecting everyone else to stay busy around Machete makes him seem more boring than heroic. And the final act of the film, during which Mel Gibson stars as Voz—the apparent super boss of this entire ordeal—seems more like a prequel to the next installment than an integral part of the adventure at hand.
And since Rodriguez pads out an unsatisfactory feature to more easily justify the next, he can expect some significantly diminished returns at the box office. Machete Kills Again…In Space may be cheaper to make (all green screen), so maybe the drop in gross won’t be so devastating. But a premise that sounds more like a bad improv scene than a tale about a folk hero, not to mention a folk hero with whom the audience has lost touch (c’mon, even Shaft in Africa was somehow dignified), is a red flag to spend your money elsewhere.
“Please come see this movie. LOOK AT ALL THE FRIGGING PEOPLE IN IT!!!” – The Marketing Department
The most confounding part of Machete Kills is that among all the chaos, the audience no longer has a sense of who Machete is besides someone who kills bad guys. Evolving from “Machete don’t text” to “Machete don’t tweet” served more to acknowledge the character viewers were once drawn to rather than to invite viewers take this next journey with him. Ironically, as Machete’s trajectory seems to be taking him to new dimensions, his character sorely lacks any that it had back in 2010.
No amount of explosions or busty women (well…maybe) could hide the clusterf___ that Machete Kills displays. Because of its shortcomings, Machete Kills demonstrates that even within the most absurd story should exist a core that grounds the audience enough to make wild ride worth it. Sure, Rocky II could have been serviceable sequel wherein newlywed Rocky’s partial blindness threatened his second chance at glory. But there would not have been as much of an interest in four more movies had he not also learned to read.