Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Machete Kills

Alternate Title:  All Blade and no Point

One sentence synopsis:     Unstoppable killer Machete returns to battle drug cartels and corrupt arms dealers on behalf of Mexico and the United States.

Things Havoc liked:  At some point, I lost track of whether it was or was not cool to like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez' 2007 exploitation double feature "Grindhouse". I for one enjoyed it (the Tarantino side in particular), and particularly enjoyed the ludicrous fake trailers that were included with it. Apparently I wasn't alone in my appreciation, for two of those trailers were turned into movies: the Rutger Hauer-helmed Hobo with a Shotgun (?), and Machete, starring stern-faced badass extraordinaire, Danny Trejo. Machete was many things, crude, violent, stupid, unhinged, and with all the political subtext of a sledgehammer, but it was also a hell of a lot of fun, showcasing Trejo at his baddest alongside a cast of basically half the films Robert Rodriguez has ever done. And so it is that here, three years after the original, we find ourselves with the sequel to the movie made from the fake trailer in the exploitation double feature (?????), Machete Kills.

Once (many decades ago) a real gangster and thug, Danny Trejo has been in something like three hundred films since 1985, of varying qualities, and with some exceptions I've loved every minute of them. His range is not tremendous, not generally straying beyond "badass with a face that could curdle milk". But within those boundaries, he has for four decades been an incredible presence on any screen he graces, scything his way through a legion of mooks with a scowl and an assortment of bladed weapons. The movie wisely does not ask him to do much beyond that in terms of the acting department, leaving the scenery chewing to others, better suited to the task. One such man is Mel Gibson, playing a weapons dealer drawn directly from the Goldfinger/Scaramanga school of Bond villainy, complete with lengthy and unnecessary explanation to the hero as to the nature of his evil plan, and a cool looking accoutrements to compensate for a hideous disfigurement. Another one is Charlie Sheen, he of the Tiger Blood and Adonis DNA, here credited as Carlos Estavez, playing none other than the President of the United States. Surprisingly enough, Sheen plays the character fairly cool, trying to channel his father perhaps, but his mere presence is a lot of fun, as are the zany situations he appears in the course of. But the best one of the bunch is probably unknown-to-me Demian Bechir, who plays a schitzophrenic drug cartel boss who alternates between scenery-chewing madness and tearful repentance. Bechir doesn't so much devour scenery as vacuum it up, but in a movie like this, that is the appropriate reaction, and he enlivens the movie every time he's on screen.

Things Havoc disliked:  ... something the movie badly needs.

I had expected a number of things to come out of Machete Kills, but not the one that ultimately kills this movie. Machete Kills is straight out boring. And the reason for this is somewhat complex, but ultimately comes down to someone forgetting what the whole point of the Grindhouse-inspired films was.

Machete had a plot, a preposterous one, grounded in racism and immigration policy and other topical issues, but nevertheless secondary to the overall experience of having Machete kill people in a violent, bloody fashion. We were not here to experience the struggle of the Mexican immigrant, nor discuss the weighty issues involved in immigration policy, we were here to watch Danny Trejo kick people's asses in the company of other Robert Rodriguez regulars. And while this does technically remain true in this movie, the film seems to think that we not only give a damn about the plot this time, but retroactively gave a damn about the previous movie's plot enough to remember every single step it took. Lengthy sequences of the film consist of people monologuing about plans and politics, punctuated by Machete killing some of them and the whole thing repeating. The original film had extremely clear-cut good and bad guys, racist murdering scum on one side and Machete's crew on the other, and while this film does keep some of that (William Sadler plays an obvious standin for Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio), the vast majority of the film is wrapped up in a labyrinthine plot involving drug cartel bosses that may or may not be evil, CIA agents that may or may not be evil, and a whole host of other characters with their own agendas and plots, all of whom betray one another seemingly at random. And in the middle of all this is Machete, who has no real ties to anyone present, and therefore seems to just drift through the film, as though this were the Big Lebowski starring Jason Voorhees. I get that in a grindhouse movie, the protagonist's invulnerable badassery is taken for granted, but the plot here is not merely unnecessary, it's actually irrelevant to Machete himself, who winds up feeling like the afterthought in his own film, so much time is taken up with exposition, double-crossing, and irrelevant plot development.

This is not the only problem. With respect to Danny Trejo, who is one of the better menacing badass character actors of the last thirty years, at the age of 69, he is no longer able to fight and kill as though he were 20. He can still sneer and look terrifying with the best of them, as well as beat the hell out of someone should it be required, but the acrobatic machete-fighting scenes are simply beyond his capacities, buttressed as they are with deceptive camera angles, ultra-close up shots, and bad CGI. Once more, I understand that this is an intentional throwback to the classic B-movies of yesteryear, but bad CGI simply does not have the retro-charm of bad practical effects, and the CGI in this movie is uniformly bad, to the point where I suspect that Rodriguez was trying to ape such legendary bad films as Birdemic.

Finally, some of the directorial decisions here simply baffle me. Machete Kills comes with an excellent cast, courtesy of Rodriguez' power as a star-magnet, but several of these excellent cast members are completely wasted in throwaway roles. Jessica Alba shows up for two minutes just to remind us that she was in the previous film, while a character called "El Cameleon" absorbs the services of a good half of the A-listers in the cast. The character is a shape-changer, by magic or theatrical talent it is never revealed, with the result that he is played (like the Doctor) by many different people at various points in the film including Antonio Banderas, post-Butler Cuba Gooding Jr, and Lady Gaga. There's nothing wrong with this idea, I suppose, except that all of these actors are utterly wasted due to El Cameleon having nothing whatsoever to do in the film. His (its?) presence consists of a handful of short scenes, each of which is played by a different actor, totaling maybe 8 minutes at the most, before being dispatched in the most perfunctory manner possible, rendering the services of all of these actors, every one of which I would have liked to see in precisely this sort of zany Rodriguez-style B-movie pastiche, into little more than glorified cameos.

Final thoughts:   Youtube has recently been showing ads for a direct-to-DVD film starring Trejo as an old west gangster raised from the grave to kill the crew that betrayed him. In these trailers, which I have to assume were made post-Machete Kills, Trejo looks perfect, a poised, menacing, glowering badass old west killer, who could be 40 or 50 or 70 or immortal for all anyone can tell (or cares). His acting looks sharper and his action cleaner and cooler than that which I saw in Machete Kills, and while I grant that trailers are intentionally designed to make people look good, this well illustrates the problem with Machete Kills. The draw of these films was Trejo, and the irreverence of Rodriguez, who was willing to let Trejo do scandalous, bloody things simply because they were awesome. It was not the shock value of stunt casting, nor the deep politics, nor some other convoluted venture into labyrinthine plotting. I literally lost track of what the hell was going on in this movie (something I don't often do), and could not, despite active efforts, catch back up. And once the plot was lost, there was simply not enough else going on to keep my attention.

The movie promises yet another Machete film in the future, one with an even more outlandish premise. But given what I saw from this movie, I'm afraid that the next time Machete takes up his blade, I'll be watching something else.

Final Score:  4/10

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