Editor’s note: Neil’s review of Machete Kills originally ran during this year’s Fantastic Fest, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in theatrical release today.
It feels like an odd tradition to have. Just about every other year, Fantastic Fest — the beloved pilgrimage of genre film fans to Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse — the opening night film is a complete dud. The first and most notable example of this came in 2009 when Gentlemen Broncos opened the festival, much to the confusion and displeasure of the always keen Fantastic Fest crowd. Following opening night, that year’s festival went on to produce memorable screenings of Antichrist, Fish Story, Zombieland, Gareth Evans’ debut Merantau and many others. It was a great year. The same came two years later when the festival opened with the overwhelmingly unlikable Human Centipede 2, only to yield the debuts of great flicks like You’re Next, Extraterrestrial, A Boy and His Samurai and the Oscar nominee Bullhead. It could be deduced, based on recent history, that the quality of the opening night film is inversely proportional to the quality of the rest of the Fantastic Fest line-up.
With that in mind, 2013 has opened with Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills. By the logic expressed above, that means 2013 is on pace to be the best Fantastic Fest line-up yet.
Of course, there is plenty of sense in the choice to make the Danny Trejo led sequel to the fake trailer turned movie Machete the opener of 2013’s Fantastic Fest. Rodriguez is easily the most prominent filmmaker Austin has to offer and the Alamo Drafthouse is an Austin institution first and foremost. Their rises to fame and glory have been paralleled in recent years. On top of that, Machete Kills is, on concept, the exact kind of movie that Fantastic Fest deals in. It’s violent, silly, made with a great deal of love for cult cinema (complete with many usual and unusual Star Wars references) and brought to life by a friend of the festival. The logic behind the choice is strong, the movie is not.
Where Machete Kills gets a lot wrong is where a lot of other movies that will show at Fantastic Fest this week get a lot right. Despite the ongoing proliferation of digital effects, many a great Fantastic Fest film has been praised for its love of the practical. Blood bags and hand-crafted severed limbs. It’s a festival that has long celebrated craftsmanship. With his latest, Rodriguez shows us that he’s less-and-less the craftsman who gave us quality action (a la Desperado) and blood-soaked latex appliances (Planet Terror). Now he’s spraying digital blood at an alarming rate, doing less interesting character work and for some inexplicable reason, he’s lost whatever abilities he had previously to frame an action sequence.
Worse still is the fact that, as we discovered with the first Machete, the concept of this movie has always been far more entertaining as a fake trailer than it ever was as a feature film. Danny Trejo grunts and lumbers through the film with his own brand of angered charm, but everything around him feels less like an unintentionally funny B-level action movie and more like a parody of an unintentionally funny B-level action movie. It proves that it’s one thing to make a bad movie on purpose and quite another to make a bad movie with no purpose. Gags are reused and recycled — including not one, but two intestine-related gags that feel like hold overs from that one great on in the first Machete — and lone bad one-liners are turned into repetitive bad one-liner themes. “Machete don’t tweet,” as he explains in the trailer. Later in the movie we find out at least 6 other things that “Machete don’t…” do. Including text, fail, come up with any new quips, move quickly, have narrative rhythm. The list goes on.
The other great problem exists with the ever-expanding cast that Rodriguez has assembled for his sequel. He likes big names in little roles, which can be a lot of fun. In this one, Walton Goggins shows up, delivers 3-4 great lines and disappears, for one reason or another. Others, namely the likes of Sofia Vergera, Alexa Vega, Michelle Rodriguez and Cuba Gooding Jr. show up for one note, even if they show up for multiple scenes. The only two bit players who seem to be having a lot of fun are Mel Gibson, who plays an insane weapons manufacturer, and Demian Bichir, who plays a Mexican revolutionary with a multiple personality disorder. Both men crank their ridiculous roles up to 11, giving a welcomed reprieve from the snarling Trejo and the uncomfortably clunky story. By the time we get to see Mel Gibson wearing a cape (it happens), we’ve already had to sit through tangents and diversions to the point of exhaustion. It’s almost as if Rodriguez was given a list of 10 names who were willing to be in the movie. And while he only really needed 3 of them, he wrote parts for all of them anyway.
The end result is a movie that fails to be as fun as its concept is on paper. A movie that is far less fun than the trailer upon which it’s based. A movie that is even less fun than the fake trailer for Machete Kills Again… in Space, which runs ahead of the movie. A movie so lumbering and unnecessarily stupid that it has rid this reviewer of the desire to see Rodriguez continue the Machete saga. He could use a trip back to his roots, back to the kid who cut awesome fake trailers. Before he had the arrogance to think that he could turn said trailers into multi-film franchises. Speaking of franchises, perhaps he should just go back and make another Spy Kids movie.
The Upside: The film does feature some martial arts work from Marko Zaror (Madrill).
The Downside: The martial arts work mentioned above is framed so poorly it becomes less impressive, which is indicative of the overworking, overcooking that defines Rodriguez’s work here.
On the Side: Seriously, Mel Gibson wears a cape. That should earn him release from movie jail, should it not?