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Machete Kills (2013)

Taking the Edge Off

I hesitate to call Machete Kills the worst film of the year, but it tops my "Most Depressing" list, for sure. This may be due to the post-screening Q&A I attended, in which director Robert Rodriguez and star Alexa Vega did a great job reminding me that they used to make exciting, interesting movies. Rodriguez loaded the chat with plugs for his upcoming television network (not kidding) and encouragement for Latino filmmakers to do everything they can to conquer the movie biz. But I'll be damned if I heard anything about actual moviemaking--aside from an anecdote in which Charlie Sheen asked to use his given Spanish name in the credits.

Speaking of anecdotes, Rodriguez loves talking about how, while filming 1995's Desperado in Mexico, the locals flocked to now-iconic badass Danny Trejo--while all but ignoring that movie's marquee star (and of-the-moment pretty-boy), Antonio Banderas. An ex-con with the look of a stone-cold killer, Trejo inspired Rodriguez to build a fake trailer around him in Machete, which opened 2007's Grindhouse. That worn, two-minute slice of Mexploitation goodness promised a silly, sex-and-violence-packed thrill ride. Sadly, 2010's feature-length version proved to be a confused and boring missed opportunity--precisely because Rodriguez took the material way too seriously, while pretending not to.

Machete Kills begins with a trailer to its own sequel, Machete Kills Again...In Space. And if you can imagine what that might look like, there's no need to watch the movie that follows. An uninspired Moonraker parody, the clip features machete lightsabers; a metal-masked, cape-wearing villain ("Played by Leonardo subject to change"); and Danny Trejo, once again starring as the titular, sentient wax dummy of a main character. The fake-trailer thing was old a half-decade ago, so sitting through a bad one at the start of a nearly two-hour movie doesn't offer much in the way of hope.

The film itself fares much worse. An ex-federale-turned-mercenary-turned-semi-revolutionary, Machete spends the picture avenging the murder of his girlfriend (Jessica Alba)* at the hands of a billionaire scientist named Voz (Mel Gibson), who wants to blow up Washington before establishing a cult on his secret moon base. The only way to Voz is through Mendez (Demian Bichir), an insane drug lord with the super-bomb's detonator woven into his heart (of course)--which means the two will spend most of the picture shooting and stabbing their way through desert downs, while Mendez switches from good guy to bad guy on a dime.

Oh, and an army of Mexican prostitutes is hot on their trail (led by Sofia Vergara, as the man-hating, tit-gun-firing Desdemona).

Oh, and there's a shape-shifting mercenary named La Camaleon, played alternately by Walt Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Lady Gaga.

Oh, and Michelle Rodriguez pops up once again as a revolutionary leader named She she was in the first one?

Is that everything?


Let's not forget Charlie Sheen as the President of the United States, who is as un-presidential as they come. He hooks Machete up with Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), a secret agent posing as a beauty queen.

Any one of these plots (or a combination of two, max) could have been shaped into what the Machete series was supposed to be: a loving homage to gritty, 70s exploitation. Instead, Rodriguez spends so much time winking at the audience he should be treated for seizures. This film is less about Machete than about the cartoon characters that surround him (which is sort of okay, because a little Trejo goes a long way--and, strangely, nowhere at the same time). To that end, Rodriguez and Tarantino-wannabe-screenwriter Kyle Ward throw in visual references to Star Wars and From Dusk Til Dawn that signal desperation rather than invention. And as the space-cult plot takes center stage, it becomes queasily obvious that the movie is not headed for an actual conclusion, but will, in fact, wrap right back around to the Machete Kills Again...In Space trailer.

It would have been rude of me to give Rodriguez advice on how to make his movie during the Q&A, but now that I'm tucked anonymously away on the Internet--along with the millions of other "haters" who just aren't going to "get" this flop--let me offer a little nugget of woulda-done wisdom: Make the trailer a surprise at the end of the picture. Those of us who pay attention during movies will see the end coming at least an hour before it arrives. We will not be amused. we will not tell our friends to check out your film.

Worse than devolving so quickly into a bad comedy, Machete Kills suffers from a tonal blemish that makes watching it downright unpleasant. La Camaleon is an exaggerated version of a character that would have felt right at home in one of Rodriguez's earlier pictures. El Mariachi and Desperado--though peppered with comedy--were also straight-up Mexican gangster movies with hard characters and harder situations. It would not have felt out of place for a villain to gleefully execute a pair of American tourists whose only crime was asking for directions. The rules change from genre to genre, and Machete just isn't meant to live in the shadow of No Country for Old Men. Call me crazy, but I didn't feel like chuckling after watching a woman get shot in the chest while screaming for her dead husband.**

Did I mention the tourists were white?

Yep, that sharp fapping sound you hear is me laying down the race card.

Race is a prevalent theme in the Machete films, and though Rodriguez often plays it off as a joke, the insidiousness is off-putting. I'm mildly offended, frankly, that every Caucasian depicted in Machete Kills is either a racist redneck, an idiot, a victim, a maniacal traitor, or a scummy businessman. Yes, I know that's why they call it "Mexploitation"--because the Latinos are supposed to be the heroes, fighting against The Man, or whatever. But it's 2013, for crying out loud. Surely, the creators--and their target audience--have met some white folks who didn't want to oppress or profile them?

To be fair, Rodriguez is an equal opportunity asshole on such matters. His movie's Mexicans are mostly killers, thieves, and drug dealers. The closest thing he has to a noble character is the leader of an underground network of illegal immigrants. You're fine to accuse me of taking a silly movie too seriously, but at least four hours of Rodriguez's creative output is devoted to spouting confused racial politics.

It's funny to hear the director talk about breaking down barriers when his work serves only to reinforce stereotypes. There's a difference between growing up with an ethnic point of view and filtering everything you see through that narrow lens--and if you're going to bring that baggage with you when making art, the work had better have something to say.

None of this supporting evidence is reason enough to land Machete Kills atop my "Most Depressing" list. The chief factor is how completely Rodriguez's film underscores his over-long sojourn in the creative wilderness. The guy used to make real movies, ones that stirred emotion and delivered surprises. To watch any action scene in Desperado is to marvel at the commitment and coordination of everyone involved in giving the audience something they've never seen before. Machete Kills features two guts-getting-caught-in-a-flying-helicopter gags--in the space of five minutes.

Again, I'm playing armchair psychologist here, but it seems as though Rodriguez has gotten so caught up in his reputation as a self-made franchise, in his famous friends, and in the bizarre notion that letting his unsupervised, eight-year-old self write and direct movies made ostensibly for adults is a great idea (that trick hasn't worked since the first Spy Kids picture, twelve years ago). As a filmmaker, he has had no substantive ideas for the last half-decade, and all the scrappy grit of the rebel without a crew has been replaced with slick camera work, CGI blood, and Vega's lovingly crafted assless chaps.

In the end, Machete Kills is less a movie than the headstone of a once great talent. I'm not ready to pronounce him creatively dead just yet, but the rock is waiting, and its epitaph is not flattering. I can only hope that someday he'll get this Machete nonsense out of his system and return to making truly sharp films.


**It's unfortunate, too, because Lady Gaga is the film's truly great discovery. I would watch a La Camaleon stand-alone picture, written and directed by 1995-era Rodriguez.

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