Machete started out as a joke. The first film was an expansion of a fake trailer made for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino‘s Grindhouse. The idea was to give the impression of an exploitation movie based on a Mexican cast, like the ‘70s blacksploitation movement. A few years later came the completed film, which mixed in the original trailer footage with new material. It was good, but due to its origins felt a little disjointed and cluttered. What surprised a lot of people was how actively political it was, having a strong message about matters of immigration and the divide between the US and Mexico. Smart stuff for a movie that looked at first glance to be the most ludicrous action fare imaginable… which it was. Now everyones back for the promised sequel, Machete Kills. While much of what made the first one work is still here, in many ways this is more cluttered than the original and the joke is beginning to wear a bit thin.
Former federale and all around bad-ass (Danny Trejo) has been given an urgent mission by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen Carlos Estevez). Noted Cartel lord Mendez the Madman (Demian Bichir) has a list of demands and if they aren’t met he’s got a missile pointing right at Washington D.C. It’s up to Machete to neutralise this threat, but there’re more forces at work besides Mendez. The threat is huge, so once again Machete will need the help of the leader of the Mexican Network, the revolutionary Shé (Michelle Rodriguez).
Starting with another joke trailer as a nod to the series’ routes, this film lets you know that things are not meant to be taken seriously. In the opening minutes of the film proper it’s established that Machete is pretty much indestructible by now, practically a superhero. Furthermore the action content is still as high as ever for Rodriguez movies, with various new toys thrown into the mix, though none quite a ludicrous as the weaponized lowriders of the last films. Still, there’s a lot of extremely comic book style violence in here, including at least two helicopter eviscerations and the return of a familiar Rodriguez running gag from Desperado and From Dusk ’till Dawn. In terms of sheer action, this one is on par with the first.
As for performances, Danny Trejo, an always dependable character actor, is still a fine lead, especially his looks of exasperation at what the rest of the cast is up to. The new cast though is a bit of a mixed bag. Not necessarily because of anyone giving a bad performance, in fact everyone is pretty game no matter how ludicrous things get or what they’re called upon to do. That’s probably down to quite a lot of them being fans of the first, and actively volunteering. There are some good performances in there, including Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga (really, she can act) and Antonio Banderas taking part in one fun sub-plot. However, the presence of the somewhat controversial Mel Gibson does make things feel a bit awkward. He’s not bad in the role, it’s just that it’s Mel Gibson, with all that entails, and it’s hard not to feel a tad uncomfortable as a result.
But all this doesn’t excuse one big thing; on the level of the script, this is more than a bit of a mess. Those subplots go on far longer than they should, ultimately don’t impact the main story and feel like they’re just there to give more actors rolls to ham up. They are strong little scenes, but they could have been worked in much better. Really, this film could and should be about twenty minutes shorter. More than a few story revelations feel really tonally out of place, as despite the sheer goofy peaks the action has reached, the film’s still trying to keep the political edge of the first. It’s also worth noting that the film’s gender politics are still a bit suspect, with the treatment of the female characters being more like the director’s Sin City. If a female character isn’t actively blazing away with a gun and/or showing cleavage, chances are they are there to die to motivate a male character (Women in Refrigerators syndrome). Smooth.
Finally though, this film actively sabotages itself in playing up the grindhouse angle. There’s a moment early on you laugh at and think “ha, good one”. But then, as the movie goes on, you start to realise it was only half joking, that the movie is really is going there. This does lead to quite a few issues with the final act, not least the way the film ends pretty abruptly and without much payoff just for the sake of this joke. It’s annoying to have the movie end in this way purely for the sake of this overindulgence; it’s amusing at first, but in the end just takes things further away from what made the first special.
All this isn’t to say that Machete Kills isn’t fun, it is, but it’s a shame that the film has gone too far down this “ironic” route. The political aspects that made the first work are all still present, but they seem so tangential to the overblown plot that a lot of the meaning is lost. While it is bold to have the film end on such a cheeky note, that doesn’t change the fact it’s actually unsatisfactory, and not nearly as funny as it must have looked on paper. The film’s still worth seeing, but when post-modernism gets in the way of plain good storytelling, that’s never a good thing. Machete Kills should really have been cut down to size.