You probably already have an idea of whether you’re going to enjoy a Machete film. The first film served to expand on the trailer created for Grindhouse, the 2008 collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Wildly over the top, knowingly silly and spectacularly violent, Machete managed to pack some surprises into a film that was created after its own highlight reel.
So, after the trailer and the first film, we’re already familiar with the cinematic language of Machete. We know how it looks, we know the tone, we know the character and we know to expect the unexpected. The question we have for Machete Kills, then, is how do you give an audience the unexpected when they’re already expecting it? Well, hats off to Robert Rodriguez, who’s found an unexpected answer to this question.
Machete Kills finds no-nonsense nuisance nullifier Machete Cortez recruited by Rathcock, President of the United States, to stop a bad guy with a bomb aimed at Washington DC. Returning to Mexico, he must find and stop maniacal Mendez the Madman. However, the dangerous Mexican drug cartels don’t welcome the return of former Federale Machete. Not only that, but Machete seems to pick up new enemies everywhere he goes. But with the fate Washington DC, and possibly the entire world at stake, Machete must behead as many people as possible against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Machete Kills takes something of a swerve around halfway through. The first half is fun enough, essentially pitching Machete as James Bond, with a beauty queen as his Q and the President as M. It’s good stuff, too, with some creative killing and wild stunts. It’s very much like the first film, though, and while it was fun I found myself wondering whether it wasn’t perhaps becoming a bit stale. Contrary to all of my instincts, I was faced with the possibility that seeing Danny Trejo fight people with blades might end up becoming a bit boring.
Then, we got to the halfway mark and there was a little twist in the film I have no intention of spoiling for you. What I will say is that I was not expecting it and it reinvigorated things for me. The second half is a joy to watch; funny, gory and relentlessly silly.
Some of the credit for the second half of the film has to go to Mel Gibson. The problems people have had with Gibson have never been due to his performances. Going into Machete Kills I couldn’t help but feel that this was a role Gibson had likely taken out of necessity (given that his last ‘incident’ sank the film The Beaver, ensembles might have to do for Mel for the time being). If that’s the case, it certainly doesn’t show in his performance. Mel plays Voz, a ruthless, eccentric villain with a strange gift. He’s hilariously unhinged, a perfect enemy for stoic slaughterer Machete. Gibson’s performance far outshines that of De Niro in the first movie and fills the void left by Steven Seagal’s absence.
Another stand out amongst the cast is Demian Bichir, who plays warped revolutionary/psychotic Mendez. With split personalities, Mendez flits from being brutally violent to appalled by his own actions. Bichir is at his best when playing the manic, murderous side of Mendez. Michelle Rodriguez and Alexa Vega are given plenty of ridiculous, wonderful things to do, too. Of course, Machete is the Danny Trejo show, and he’s as sturdy as ever as the Mexploitation (almost) superhero.
As a 30-year-old man, I’m not that aware of Lady Gaga. I don’t say that with any pride, like I’m better than knowing about pop music. Rather, I’m trying to contextualise my opinion of her performance and how her character is presented. I know who she is and have seen a few things she’s done, but I don’t have any set opinions on her and probably don’t fully appreciate her place within pop culture. Robert Rodriguez treats her character as grandiose, perhaps overly so considering the character’s role in the plot, and Gaga plays it perfectly; straight, demented and full of energy.
All this on the cast, then, and I’ve only mentioned half of the ‘names’ in Machete Kills. I couldn’t pick a weak link. Those I haven’t mentioned include Walton Goggins, Jessica Alba, Amber Heard, Antonio Banderas, Charlie Sheen (here introduced as Carlos Estevez), Vanessa Hudgens and William bloody Sadler. Everyone just seems to be having a good time. It’s no wonder Rodriguez was able to put together such an impressive cast.
Also due praise for the fun tone of Machete Kills is screenwriter Kyle Ward, who gives every character something ludicrous to do. They are all characters, too, everyone with some personailty. The chunky guitar score of the first film is back, along with some synth-y, John Carpenter-influenced moody new pieces, all courtesy of Robert Rodriguez’s band Chingon.
The creative kills and bizarre situations are almost comforting in these circumstances. In Machete Kills, we have an action movie that makes almost no effort to be gritty and grumpy. It has the same stakes as other modern action movies (the fate of the world!), but it’s presented in such a ridiculous way, it almost feels like it’s mocking the current trend of hyper-destructiveness. Machete Kills is a fun night at the cinema, not afraid or embarrassed to please, tease and pander to its audience.
Machete Kills is not without its flaws, unfortunately. I appreciate that to achieve what they wanted to on the budget they had, digital effects were always going to happen, but CG bloodletting simply isn’t as much fun as real splatter. There are also some effects that look ropey past a point where they can be written off as a tribute to the ramshackle grindhouse films Machete Kills is paying tribute to. I’ll also mention an occasional clash of tones, too, as Machete Kills will occasionally dabble in the grimy and murky, only to switch immediately back to its wacky hyperactivity. It’s jarring and a little uncomfortable.
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, and a symptom of the full, brilliant cast, is that at times it feels like Machete, the guy we’re paying to see, is sidelined in his own film. In order to fit everyone in, he gets rescued or left out repeatedly. Also, there are a lot of “Machete don’t X” jokes. You get a couple, absolutely, but it gets over used and wears out its welcome.
Overall, though, Machete Kills is a riot. Writing spoiler-free reviews can be a bit of a nightmare, and the last thing I want to do is spoil Machete Kills for you, but if you’re going to like any Machete film, you’re probably going to dig this one. It’s cheeky, rambunctious and surprising.
The final point to mention is that there’s a tremendous set up for the third entry in the series, which, for me, can’t come soon enough.
Machete Kills is out in UK cinemas on the 11th October.
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