In the opening moments of 2007's "Grindhouse," an endlessly self-indulgent double-feature experiment by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, there was a trailer for a movie that didn't exist -- at least not yet. That movie was "Machete," and it starred Danny Trejo as a knife-wielding federale-cum-freedom fighter, who gets double-crossed and then goes on a gore soaked-campaign of revenge.
For two minutes, "Machete" was very funny. It was so ridiculously over the top that there was no way that it could ever be a real movie -- full of gratuitous nudity, over-the-top violence, and plot points that seem less like they were scripted and more like they fell out of some lost, incredibly lurid comic book from the 1970s.
But director Rodriguez, who helmed the phony movie ad, thought that it could be something more, so in 2010 he expanded the "Machete" trailer into an actual, feature-length goof. It had a surprisingly solid cast (including, but not limited to, Lindsey Lohan, Robert De Niro, Cheech Marin, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Steven Seagal, and Don Johnson). But ultimately, that film felt like a letdown -- it was overlong, draggy, and was awkwardly trapped between legitimate social satire (about the relationship between Mexico and America and the heated immigration debate) and pulpy blast.
At the end of that movie, Rodriguez jokingly promised two sequels -- the first of which, "Machete Kills," has actually come to fruition. This might be the least likely franchise this side of Richard Linklater's "Before..." series. Was it worth a return trip to the Mexican border, or was this something best left unexplored?
1. It's a Pretty Direct Sequel
Part of what made cheesy exploitation sequels fun was that they often had very little to do with the actual movie. There would be the same actors in roles that would sometimes seem similar and the scenarios might be pretty close, in an if-you-squint-your-eyes type of way. "Machete Kills" is as direct a sequel as one of the "Fast and Furious" movies, meaning that it pays a shocking amount of lip service to the previous film and the "mythology" that's being built, block by chunky block. But, that being said, even if you weren't taking notes during your drunken first viewing of "Machete," you won't be totally lost. It's pretty easy to keep up with, and there are only a few characters who have been carried over to the new movie. For the most part, it's a whole different circus.
2. Those Who Are Squeamish, Look Away Now
"Machete Kills" is violent. Like, incredibly violent. In a really unpleasant way. It's meant to be "fun" and "joyful" but it doesn't come across like that. It's ugly. Part of this has to do with the budget for "Machete Kills," which seems lower than an average episode of "Law & Order: SVU" (more on that later), so everything has a kind of queasy cheapness. There's also no catharsis to the violence. It's just kind of bloody stuff and things flying. In the past, there have been at least attempts from Hollywood to deal with gun violence in a somewhat sensitive way, following a number of high-profile shootings, but here that isn't an issue. Rarely am I actually taken aback by the level of screen violence. This was one of those times.
3. The Supporting Cast Is Sort of Incredible
The supporting of "Machete Kills" follows: Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, Demian Bichir, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Walt Goggins, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., William Sadler, Jessica Alba, Vanessa Hudgens, and Tom Savini. Not bad, huh? Part of the fun of "Machete Kills" is watching who is going to pop up next. It's a weird grab bag of odd supporting performances by a succession of actors who you would never expect to be in something as shaggy dog as this. Looking through the press notes, Robert Rodriguez notes that for most of the smaller roles, like Lady Gaga as an assassin known as the Chameleon, he only had them for a day. We're not sure this actually constitutes as a "role" or, quite frankly, "filmmaking," but we'll take it.
4. It's Insanely Long
Ideally, "Machete" would have stayed a two-minute-long fake trailer. But no, there had to be a movie. That movie was 105 minutes, which was already about twenty minutes too long. Now we have another movie and, improbably, this one is even longer. This one is 108 minutes. And that length is punishing. This is just too much "Machete." But wait...
5. There Is the Promise of Another One
At the beginning of "Machete Kills" there's a trailer for a third movie, called "Machete Kills Again... In Space." And, amazingly, "Machete Kills" maneuvers itself to the position of it actually setting up "Machete Kills Again... In Space" as a legitimate sequel. Whether or not that ever gets made remains to be seen (I've been pleading with God to kill the franchise now), but the fact that they set up an elaborate joke at the beginning of the movie with the full intent on following through with that promise by the end is sort of phenomenal. And incredibly ballsy.
6. "Sharknado" Probably Had a Bigger Budget
"Machete Kills" looks cheap, to the point that the effects are so woefully inept that they actively take away from your enjoyment of the movie. According to online estimates, which are always correct, the budget was somewhere around $20 million. While far from being a huge number, you can still do a lot with $20 million. That's about what Danny Boyle had for "Trance," and that movie was a sumptuous visual feast while "Machete Kills..." is not.
7. Danny Trejo Is Getting Really Old
For the star of an action franchise, Trejo is pushing 70, and it's not exactly easy for him to move around. A lot of times his movements look robotic and he's got a paunch that wasn't always there. He looks most at peace in a scene where he's floating in some kind of lagoon of glowing goo. Must have made his joints feel great.
8. This Is Not a Welcome Return for Mel Gibson
In some perverse way, "Machete Kills" was supposed to act as a comeback for Mel Gibson, whose career has suffered after a series of titanic public embarrassments. The thing is, it's not exactly great to have Mel back. He looks like hell (again, this could be the fault of the atrocious lighting/costuming/make-up of the shoestring budget) and, worst of all, he doesn't seem to be having much fun in the movie. He should have taken a cue from Demian Bichir, who seems to be relishing every moment he's got on screen. If only everyone was having such a great time.
9. It Will Make You Long for When Robert Rodriguez Made Real Movies
Watching "Machete Kills," which has all the respectability of a high school performance of "Rent," it made me think back to when Robert Rodriguez made real films. These were movies that were shot on film, with actors that actually respected themselves, and utilized a host of top-notch creative collaborators -- people like cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, composer Danny Elfman, and musicians Los Lobos. What came of the whole "Grindhouse" experience was that it illuminated the differences between Rodriguez and Tarantino as filmmakers: Quentin Tarantino was pretending to be a low budget hack; Rodriguez doesn't have to pretend.
10. The Title Sequence Is Probably the Best Part
The title sequence is really fantastic, presenting the movie like it's a Hispanic James Bond film. Just wonderfully done -- great font choices, great graphics. Too bad it's pretty much down hill from there.