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Second Time’s a Flop

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machetekillsI was interested in seeing “Machete Kills,” the follow-up to the grind-house-inspired Robert Rodriguez film, “Machete,” starring Danny Trejo. I’m a big fan of schlock cinema and the original was a bloody good time—brutal, funny, and dripping in the kind of ridiculous over-the-top shenanigans that made low-budget exploitation films of the ‘70s so rewarding. It deftly navigated the line between parody and homage to deliver a gonzo final product that was both disposable and highly entertaining. The follow-up is much more disposable and a lot less entertaining.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything of value in “Machete Kills.” These kinds of movies are visceral experiences. They’re sure as hell not think pieces. But the second “Machete” devolves too far into parody and becomes less like a grind-house-inspired death fest and more like an Austin Powers movie. This is not a good thing. Everything about “Machete Kills” feels cheap. It’s an obviously low-budget production, but it has a distinct digital feel that makes it feel too high tech for the material. The high-definition cameras capture every flaw in the set and every cheaply thrown together element of the film. It gives the entire production that SyFy original movie feel, as if the whole movie was put together by the crew who produced “Sharknado.” Cheaply produced is cheaply produced, I suppose.

However, while watching “Machete Kills,” it made me realize the variances between the old low-budget film and the new low-budget movie—and the changes make the differences glaring. “Machete Kills” features a lot of gore, but it’s cheaply produced digital gore. The blood spatters are computer-generated, and the most explosive scenes are so obviously the product of special effects. In theory, watching Machete slice off the heads and appendages of a dozen armed thugs or blowing up a guy with a laser gun would be exhilarating, but when done digitally, it’s kind of a damp squib.

And it’s disappointing because the elements of the story are so crazy. Machete is recruited by President Rathcock (Charlie Sheen) to go into Mexico and find a terrorist who possesses a nuclear missile. It seems in this new world order, Mexico has been reduced to a brutal post-apocalyptic landscape walled off from America and left to revel in insanity. The whole plot is reminiscent of cult classics like “Escape from New York.” Yet, we never get any glimpse of this crazy world because the film is so remarkably claustrophobic in scope. I’m not expecting “grand” or “epic” in a grind-house movie, but a little effort would have gone a long way.

Soon Machete learns an evil billionaire (are there any other kinds?) named Vox (Mel Gibson) has engineered a plan that will orchestrate a global war ending mankind, just as he and his rich friends exit the earth for a space station where a new society will be born. Machete must stop the bad guys.

A wonderfully ludicrous plot and some quality actors fill in the peripheral roles, but the whole movie feels like it’s running on fumes. It looks and feels like a SNL Digital Short where nothing is taken seriously and everyone is in on the joke. I don’t expect a deadly commitment to seriousness in a movie like this, but I also have no interest in spending 90 minutes watching everybody wink at the camera.
Grind-house films are great because no one tries to make something stupid. The goal is to make something great for very little money. Economic encumbrances prevent that from happening, and instead of something epic and awesome, we end up with something fun. The chuckling should be unintentional.

Mike Myers so successfully skewered the spy movies of the 1960s because he made fun of the goofy qualities: the fashion, the remarkably similar plans for world domination, the elaborate death traps. But he also filled it with jokes, relationships and characters. Rodriguez seems like he wants to make something funnier this time out, but he lacks any real comedic sensibility. His digital demises take away the amusement factor of watching people getting shot and hacked to death. So much of the creative proposition of “Machete Kills” relies on the audience to find amusement in recognizable actors and celebrities being silly—kind of like watching the chesty Sofia Vegara firing bullets from a machine-gun bra, or seeing Mel Gibson ham it up as an insane would be world dominating villain. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it as amusing the second time around.

The entire movie was a sad and sobering reminder about how interesting the indie directors of the 1990s were, back when they all had so much promise. Directors like Rodriguez, Tarantino, Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith were out making such great movies for no money. Twenty years later, so few of them have been able to maintain any level of quality and creatively speaking have aged poorly. Tarantino is one of the few to electrify audiences. The rest have transitioned into middle-age and sort of just vanished.

Rodriguez seems content playing with his digital toolbox and churning out junk like “Machete Kills.” He’s a filmmaker who made his career on violently fun movies like “El Mariachi,” “Desperado” and “From Dusk Til Dawn.” “Machete Kills” lacks the same technique that made those movies so entertaining. I could be more forgiving if I tried too hard, but the cardinal sin of this sequel seems to be that it didn’t try hard enough.

Machete Kills

Starring Danny Trejo, Alexa Vega, Mel Gibson
Directed by Alfonso Curaon
Rated PG-13

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