Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on September 19th during Fantastic Fest 2013. We’re republishing it now since the film comes to theaters this Friday, October 11th.
The only thing worse than a bad grindhouse movie is a boring one, and Machete Kills is shockingly boring. Although it feels like it has more story than all of the movies I’ve seen in 2013 combined, it isn’t “about” anything at all – it’s the cinematic equivalent of joke that serves as its own punchline, which somebody mistakenly encouraged its author to keep developing. In perpetuating this one note concept, writer-director Robert Rodriguez, who no longer seems to know (or, more likely, care) about the difference between kitsch and straightforward storytelling, creates a sequel precisely as gratuitous as his fake trailer-turned-real movie deserves – which is to say, it’s both excessively graphic and utterly pointless.
Danny Trejo (Machete) returns as Machete, who is literally saved from the end of a noose by The President (Charlie Sheen) in order to track down a schizophrenic Mexican drug lord-cum-freedom fighter named Mendez (Demian Bichir). Despite an absence of stealth or even strategy other than regularly making claims like “Machete don’t tweet,” the blade-wielding killer successfully apprehends Mendez, but he’s soon forced to deal with a bigger challenge than his captive’s multiple personalities – namely, the detonator that will unleash a nuclear strike on Washington D.C. if his heart stops. Torn between killing Mendez and protecting him from the army of killers that are out for both of their heads, Machete tries to steal his way back across the border in order to alert the U.S. authorities, only to discover that the conspiracy surrounding this Mexican missile crisis is far more twisted and dangerous than anything he’s encountered.
As lovable as Trejo has been in small roles in the past, he’s grown as an actor into a granite block of one-liners, and Rodriguez gives him little more to do than, again, indulge the sex-and–violence clichés of the exploitation movies that inspired Machete’s creation. Unfortunately, Trejo’s costars either wildly overplay their roles or complement his deadpan style with lifeless performances of their own, likely owing to the fact that Rodriguez seems entirely disinterested in nailing down a definable tone, much less a consistent one. As a government agent whose cover is pretending to be a pageant contestant, for example, Amber Heard vacillates between cartoonish vamping and empty self-seriousness. Or in the case of Sofia Vergara’s man-hating madam, Desdemona, she’s at least fully defined, but it’s impossible to know whether to laugh, cry, or cover your eyes in embarrassment for the actress as she reveals the character’s brutal tale of childhood empowerment, which involved devouring her father’s balls.
While it comes as no small shock that Sheen delivers one of the better performances in the film, Demian Bichir’s turn as Mendez is itself a tragedy, mostly because has no place in this film. Grinning with madcap abandon like a The Good, The Bad and The Ugly-era Eli Wallach when he’s in his “drug lord” persona, he throws himself into the role in a way that seemingly no one else in the film does with theirs, creating a real sense of sadness – not just in terms of the character’s inescapable mental deterioration, but in witnessing acting work that the quality of the script does not earn.
Further, Machete Kills is extraordinarily overlong, or at least it seems like it is given how many times Machete faces off against a dozen foes, finds himself bested, miraculously rejoins his opponents, and then starts over with a new batch. Although Rodriguez refreshes his cast every ten minutes or so with a new group of C-listers, he gives each of them exactly one thing to do apiece: possess a skill, serve a narrative purpose, or demonstrate a personality quirk, and that’s it. Creating the ensemble he uses in this film doesn’t even qualify as stunt casting, because it’s unclear if the actors are genuinely slumming, or they only think they are, and in either case, none of their roles has enough substance to arouse interest from the audience, much less affect its story.
Worst of all, the movie isn’t even bad enough to really be the best-worst example of what it’s imitating, a truly horrible film that fails so grandly that even abject hatred feels like a victory for the filmmakers. It’s “just” aggressively mediocre, plodding forward from one development to the next without invention or variation, ultimately content just to thrill people whose level of enjoyment of a film is measured in direct proportion to the volume of totally pointless, half-assedly “cool” violence that gets depicted on screen. In which case, Machete Kills is really a lot more like the grindhouse movies that inspired it than it probably wishes, because like so many of them, it isn’t charmingly kitschy, or gloriously awful, but just a bland, tasteless, and most of all forgettable imitation of something much better.
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