Review: Machete Kills
If I had to pick one bright new talent this year, it would be Carlos Estevez.
As the boozing, gun-worshipping, horndogging President Rathcock in Machete Kills, Estevez delivers a powerhouse performance destined to carry him -- a first-time actor whose face is oddly familiar -- to the heights of stardom.
Oh, wait -- IMDb says Carlos Estevez is, in fact, Charlie Sheen. No wonder I'd seen him before. But whatever his name, his performance is ... well, no. I led you astray, gentle Machete fans. To be honest, his performance isn't all that great. It's not awful, and at times it's entertaining and funny. But it's nothing special.
In other words, Estevez/Sheen's performance is like everything else in Machete Kills -- more meh than memorable.
In Robert Rodriguez's follow-up to Machete, President Rathcock recruits the titular ex-Federale (Danny Trejo) to slip into Mexico to take down crazed revolutionary arms dealer Mendez (Demian Bichir). With help from a fellow agent posing as Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), Machete crosses the border and finds his quarry quickly -- but only after a rather violent encounter in a Mexican cathouse with wicked madam Desdemona (Sofía Vergara) and a bevy of heavily armed hookers.
When he attempts to capture Mendez and bring him back to the U.S., Machete discovers a much greater threat -- an international crime ring headed by Luther Voz (Mel Gibson), an oddball zillionaire arms dealer with a diabolical plan involving nuclear war and space travel. Machete finds himself entwined in a broad conspiracy, trying to survive while foiling Voz and his evil minions.
Along the way, there are the expected Machete hallmarks -- double-crosses, the lovely Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and her network of immigrant revolutionaries, impressive weaponry, ridiculous violence, scantily clad women behaving badly (or perhaps awesomely) and all manner of fu. A subplot involves four very different actors (to avoid spoilers, I won't name them) playing an assassin named El Cameleón/La Cameleón, who makes Machete's life even more complicated.
But kick-ass as they sometimes are, these hallmarks feel tired in Machete Kills. The film is a lot like Machete -- but it's no Machete. Some critics, alas, are calling it Machete Bores.
The original film is fresh, clever and very funny, sending up Seventies exploitation films with a bloody wink. More than just a gore-splattered homage, Machete also works well as a real movie; it has a complex, coherent plot, many memorable moments and a surprising amount of character development. In its own campy way, it also makes some substantial points about racism and the hypocrisy of U.S. immigration policy.
But Machete Kills merely rehashes Machete's gore and mayhem, with far less cleverness or depth. The plot is barely there and makes little sense; the film hints at a story line but never develops any of its potential threads, as if doing so would needlessly interrupt all the fighting and car chases. The action is well choreographed and can have great visceral appeal -- really now, who doesn't want to watch Michelle Rodriguez beat the crap out of someone? But it's repetitive, there is way too much of it and we've seen it all before.
The returning characters, so fascinating in the first film, are far less interesting this time around; they're developed no further and do little more than kill and kill again. Most of the new characters are duds, especially the lifeless, one-dimensional Miss San Antonio, who should be a fine femme fatale. Luther Voz has some intriguing possibilities, but he's just as uninteresting, and Gibson is too stiff in the role. Casting him as a Bond-style villain should have injected Machete Kills with some silly, goofy fun, but this kind of role obviously isn't Gibson's forte.
If Machete Kills is mediocre, it's not for lack of talent or ideas; Robert Rodriguez and company have done some terrific work. What undermines the film is that its talented actors are working from a very weak script. Clever dialogue can make us forgive an exploitation film's lack of plot, but this isn't the case in Machete Kills. While Machete's characters speak with deliciously tart tongues, in the sequel they're more like annoying party guests who think they're far funnier and more interesting than they really are. If their obvious dialogue is meant to be obviously campy, it usually misses its target. There are many moments when the actors seem to be forcing the dialogue, as if they're aware of their awkward lines.
So, what works in Machete Kills? Many of the sight gags are quite funny. (If anything about the film is truly memorable, it's the sight of Desdemona firing her machine gun-equipped bra.) There are some fun cameos and clever jabs at obsessive movie fandom. The pacing is zippy enough to make Machete Kills more watchable than it should be. And fu fans who never tire of hyperviolent action certainly won't be bored.
But if you're expecting a worthy sequel to the stellar Machete, skip Machete Kills. It will dash your hopes very quickly. Then again, while it's not smart enough to be a great film -- or maybe even a good one -- it isn't terrible. It's passable low-rent entertainment, and sometimes we all need a little mindless babes-and-bullets fun.
Austin/Texas connections: Machete Kills was filmed in Austin, mostly at Austin Studios. Longtime Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is a pillar of the local film community. Amber Heard was born in Austin. Michelle Rodriguez was born in San Antonio. Several Texan actors appear in minor roles, and sharp-eyed Austinites will spot some famous locals as extras.