Saturday, October 19, 2013

MACHETE KILLS Is Fun But Overstuffed B-Movie Insanity


- I love that we're still living in a world where postmodern grindhouse films like Machete can be made. There's something to be said for the anything-goes aesthetic of these movies, and the sheer sense of fun to be had with them. In an age when too many action movies seem overly grim, it's refreshing to sit back and watch a movie that at its core is solely about having fun - realism, political correctness, and good taste be damned. That said, MACHETE KILLS worries me just a bit. Because in spite of what I just said, if you look at the original Tarantino/Rodrguez Grindhouse collaboration, there was also a strong sense of creativity and ingenuity at play. Yes, those films were fun, and reveled in exploitation-genre excess. But there was also a real sense that we were getting a chance to see great filmmakers stretch and test their own limits. It felt like Tarantino and Rodriguez were using Grindhouse as an opportunity to really flex their creative muscles, and tell stories that wouldn't necessarily fly in their slightly-more-mainstream films. The first Machete film was an extension of that, with Rodrguez presenting a fully-realized vision of the over-the-top character he first debuted as part of a fan-favorite fake (at the time) Grindhouse trailer. With MACHETE KILLS though, you have to wonder if this is less about Rodriguez really innovating, and more about him just sort of screwing around. I don't mean that in a purely negative way ... but Machete Kills feels like, perhaps, Rodriguez went for the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the detriment of actually making a great movie.

MACHETE KILLS very quickly becomes completely insane, and only gets crazier as it goes. I'll say this: the movie begins in rather mind-blowing fashion, kicking off with a "Coming Attractions" trailer for a *third* Machete movie - "Machete Kills Again ... In Space." Yes, you heard me. And yes, this trailer is awesome and just completely whacked out.

But here's the weird thing ... while that trailer plays out like an extended gag, Rodriguez soon shows that he's actually pretty damn serious about it. Without spoiling too much, Rodriguez legitimately builds towards a Machete-in-space movie with MACHETE KILLS. And he strains and bends over backwards to get there. And maybe that's part of the problem ... Rodriguez seems to think there's nothing funnier or more entertaining than the idea that, yep, this is all actually leading up to a Machete-in-space movie. But he sort of undermines the so-random-its-hilariousness of that scenario by creating a very, very convoluted plot to get there.

The movie is packed to the brim with characters and plot points, some more memorable than others. First off though, Danny Trejo is once again quite simply badass and awesome as the title character. In fact, I still get a kick out of the fact that the sixty-something, craggy-faced Trejo actually gets to star in an action film and kick ass like he does as Machete. All other factors aside, Rodriguez inherently understands why Danny Trejo is a badass, and understands how best to have him do and say awesome things. Trejo just keeps getting older and more craggy, and it's increasingly obvious when a stuntman is filling in for him in fight scenes. But somehow, the older he gets, the more awesome it is to imagine the man kicking ass and just becoming increasingly badass and invincible with age. The movie's best running gag plays off this very concept - that Machete is impervious to pain and death in a quasi-supernatural manner. When one adversary tries to hang him, the noose simply has no effect on Machete's tree stump-like neck. It's the non-Trejo characters that are more of a mixed bag ...

My favorite new addition to the cast is probably Amber Heard as the fantastically-named, beauty queen-slash-secret agent Ms. San Antonio. Between this and Drive Angry 3D, I'm convinced that Heard needs to just be in every grindhouse-style action movie made from here on out. She just has a perfect understanding of how to do these kinds of roles - with just the right level of self-aware tongue-in-cheekness. The best is when Heard gets to spar with another B-action queen in Michelle Rodriguez. M-Rod is in the movie for far too short a time, but she definitely spices things up when she becomes more prominently featured in the thirds act - and her back-and-forth banter with Heard is a highlight.

Meanwhile, Charlie Sheen (or "Emilio Estevez" - his real name that he's billed as here), is entertaining as the by-god President of the United States - a foul-mouthed, womanizing POTUS who is pretty much, well, Charlie Sheen. And it's great to see a small but crucial role from the great Tom Savini.

On the other hand, MACHETE KILLS is filled with fun and capable actors playing somewhat pointless parts. Demian Bichir feels way too overqualified to play Mendez, a criminal mastermind suffering from multiple personality disorder. I'm a big Bichir fan, and he elevates the character ... but Mendez is a prime example of the movie's tendency to overindulge and try to do too much without enough real payoff. Bichir is entertaining, but by his fifth or sixth personality change, I was over it. Same for the identity-shifting assassin character played in turn by Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas. I would have rather seen an actor like Goggins really get to sink his teeth into a substantial part than be part of this somewhat wearisome gimmick character. Same for Banderas. And hey, Lady Gaga shows some nice potential. She fits right in as a grindhouse femme fatale. Less natural is Sofia Vergara as masochistic madame Desdemona. Her character feels shoehorned into the film, and Vergara just seems a bit awkward - even if her chest-mounted machine guns are sort of hilarious. And finally, there's Mel Gibson as uber-villain Voz. Gibson gives it the ol' college try, and he's more palatable than usual when playing a villain we're *supposed* to hate. But his villainous monologues get very old very quick, and the scenes in which Gibson gets the spotlight are just plain draggy - a cardinal sin in a movie called Machete Kills.

Don't get me wrong, MACHETE KILLS has plenty of great, over-the-top moments, and it's mostly a lot of fun. Trejo doesn't say much, but he kills the one-liners as only he can, and he brings the badassery in heaping helpings. Heard and Michelle Rodriguez are worthy supporting players, and along with Sheen are the standouts in an eclectic and overloaded cast. And the Machete-in-space stuff is pretty priceless. Even if Machete Kills dampened my enthusiasm for the franchise just a bit, the idea of one more, balls-to-the-wall intergalactic outing is enough to re-ignite my excitement. The teasers we get in this one are just bat$#%& insane. Still, Machete Kills is proof that it ain't exactly easy to translate five minutes of kickass trailer into an hour-and-a-half of kickass feature film. With a trailer, the more awesome and crazy that's packed in, the better - sensory overload is the goal. But a full-length feature demands a little something more, and in some ways, a little less. Restraint *can* be a good thing, even in an over-the-top grindhouse flick. Machete Kills, while still fun, funny, and highly entertaining, could have benefited from a little more focus. It needed more of a reason to exist beyond just being a bridge towards Machete going sci-fi. Rest assured though, when Machete does rocket up to the stars to lay waste to some cosmic suckas, I'm all in, baby.

My Grade: B

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