The “Machete” franchise is based on just one joke. It used to be a pretty funny one, one that gave the filmmakers years of mileage. “Machete Kills” runs that joke into the ground, murders it, and murders it again and again. This is not a success.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring 69-year-old lifer Danny Trejo as the titular Mexican badass, the movie dates back to an idea Rodriguez and Trejo had two decades ago, later, of course, used for one of those “fake trailers” in “Grindhouse,” and eventually the 2010 original film.
That first movie was actually a pleasant surprise, a “First Blood”/”Death Wish”/blaxploitation homage combining hilariously over-the-top violent action sequences with political satire about immigration and Mexican-American border relations in which Trejo, in his first-ever starring role, was clearly having the time of his life. I wouldn’t have guessed that that very funny fake trailer could result in a full-length film of any success, but I was pleasantly surprised.
The filmmakers should have stopped at one. Not only does the central joke run its course in about ten minutes, but “Machete Kills” is saddled with a plot that’s both nonsensical and ridiculously complicated. “Kills” is also both much less funny and way more violent- the body count here is likely in the triple digits.
The plot goes in about eight different directions, the only interesting one of which involves the great actor Demian Bichir (from The Bridge) as a Mexican revolutionary who may not be what he seems, though that’s dropped very early on. The sequel also mostly stays away from the political satire, which was one of the better aspects of the first movie.
However, about halfway through the plot takes a sharp turn into a bunch of sci-fi stuff that’s both ridiculous and completely out of place in this universe. It’s as though “Moonraker” had been the second James Bond movie.
“Machete Kills” is mostly cast with people Rodriguez just felt like putting in the movie. The first film’s successful deployment of Lindsay Lohan is followed up here with both Mel Gibson (as a supervillain) and Charlie Sheen (as the president of the United States, and billed using his given name, “Carlos Estevez.”) And an inspired gag involving a shape-shifting assassin leads to cameos for Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Antonio Banderas and (you guessed it) Lady Gaga.
Gibson has a good time hamming it up as the bad guy, though the schadenfreude of a fallen superstar like him playing second fiddle to a journeyman like Trejo is more entertaining than than he does in the movie. But none of the Charlie Sheen stuff is the slightest bit funny; it’s based, once again, on a single joke- that Charlie Sheen sure is out of control with the ladies- that was probably super-topical when the idea was conceived, though not so much anymore. And least those jokes are only from a couple years ago- the presidential horndog stuff seem left over from the Clinton years.
As with just about the entire Rodriguez filmography, all women are both ridiculously gorgeous and scantily clad for no reason. Amber Heard has a juicy part as a pageant contestant who’s also a spy, and even Rodriguez’s old “Spy Kids” star Alexa Vega shows up, not wearing much at all. Meanwhile, Sofia Vergara takes on the part played by Salma Hayek in a half-dozen of the director’s previous films, as a sexy bordello proprietor. Does it surprise you that she shoots machine gun bullets out of her breasts? I’d be more surprised if she didn’t.
And the less said about Lady Gaga’s foray into acting, the better.
Sure, the “Machete” franchise has already overachieved. But this second film crashes and burns, and that it spends both its opening and closing promising a third isn’t especially encouraging.