By Jeff Weinstein
If you’re not familiar with the name Robert Rodriguez, you might want to think of him as one of the rare, few directors who have attempted taking us to the same bloody, madcap alternate universe Quentin Tarantino often does—and actually pulls it off. And no surprise: he co-wrote and co-directed 2007’s “Grindhouse” with Tarantino. “Machete Kills” is the third movie based on the faux movie trailers featured in “Grindhouse.”
It is a tongue-in-cheek ’70s-style action-exploitation flick that is the sequel to “Machete” (2010); and although it doesn’t carry the same heft as the original, it is still a raucous joy ride. It reprises the grizzled, stone-faced Danny Trejo’s earthy, ex-Federale character, Machete. Also back are Machete’s right hand, Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and Immigration officer, Sartana (Jessica Alba).
Machete is recruited by U.S. President Rathcock (Carlos Estevez, alias Charlie Sheen) to take down a powerful Mexican drug lord and terrorist, Mendez the Madman (Demian Bichir). This rabbit hole eventually leads him to the lion’s den of the great-and-powerful Voz (Mel Gibson), a twisted billionaire arms dealer who has a Dr. Evil-scale plan to destroy the world.
Machete delivers on his legend: he is so invincible, so unsinkable, he can’t even be successfully hanged in Sheriff Doakes’ (William Sadler’s) office. He is a cat blessed with 109 lives: he’s beaten , shot up into a slice of Swiss cheese, left for dead in the desert—and yet cannot be killed (but this high-octane saga never runs out of gas, so you don’t mind). One thing I did notice that slowed the villains down, is that no matter how many machine gun clips they emptied to destroy a pursued vehicle, it never once dawned on anyone to shoot out the tires. Tires seem to be sacred territory no bad guy ever trespasses upon.
This hayride from Hell might cause a kerfuffle amongst parents because of the nonstop brutality, blood-letting, misogynistic overtones, stabbings, obscene language and gratuitous sex—but at least no one is seen smoking a cigarette. Anyway, there’s too many laughs here for these comic book-like portrayals to be mistaken as a primer for creating your own Columbine. And besides, you never see anyone using the bathroom in this movie either—and no one seems to be afraid their kids will construe this as a cult message promoting constipation.
But honestly, if cinema actually had a Svengali-effect over the audience, the real response of a young person watching this movie would be to think, “Hey, I can film a story this crazy and become a millionaire too”; and then change his or her last name to Spielburg.
There are a lot of sexy women prancing around this Salvador Dalí diorama. And feminist grand puba Gloria Steinem might condemn them as sex-object eye candy, but “Machete
Kills” merely spoofs the exploitation genre. This film doesn’t lapse into an X-rated Russ Meyers fantasy, like “Supervixens” (1975). If anything, there is total female empowerment à la Meyers’ “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” (1966) Nearly all the women in this movie are total bad-asses, with nary a shrinking violet in the bunch.
For example, Sofía Vergara (from “Modern Family”) as Madame Desdemona is an archetypal dominatrix-sex goddess reminiscent of Raquel Welch’s Priestess of the Whip from another off-the-wall movie, “The Magic Christian” (1969). The difference is that here, Vergara’s psychotic, murderous vamp makes Jack the Ripper look like Steve Carell’s 40-year-old virgin.
Just as the bionic Fembots in the Austin Powers series tried to bring down the international man of mystery with their booby guns, Desdemona attempts the same against Machete with her booby machine guns (which are Gatling guns spinning and blazing from her operatic Viking lady breast plate). This scene gets nuttier, escalating to a Mel Brooks farce, when her cod piece transforms into a very phallic revolver, its long barrel being fed bullets from dual cylinders, one on each side. Her angry hip-thrusts, despite being featured in commercials and trailers, are still hilarious.
Lady Gaga’s cinematic debut keeps the rollicking fun rolling as a mistress of disguise—also out to get Machete—La Camaleón. Her constant change of identity finds her, at various times, looking mysteriously like Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Walton Goggins.
Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen, likely included for their controversial edge, add to the comic relief in roles where they are essentially mocking their real-life personas.
The cinematography always fascinates and the editing keeps catapulting the audience forward just when it thinks it’s caught its breath.
“Machete Kills” is a tasty, delicately balanced pastry of A-level B-movie insanity—a galloping romp at best, a guilty pleasure at worst. A director with a less deft hand than Rodriguez would have instead doled out a bland, overwrought brick. (See SNL alumnus will Ferrell’s “Casa de Mi Padre.”) It’s a revenge movie that knows better than to take itself seriously, and this wink, wink; nudge, nudge-quality (to quote Monty Python) keeps it from getting stale. Sheen’s President Rathcock, in a re-election commercial, said “It’s been a groovy four years….” And in the same token, this Tarantino-tinctured dreamscape was a groovy hour and 48 minutes.