With such a long blade, you'd think Machete would have taken a bigger cut of the box office. Not that anyone expected blockbuster numbers from "Machete Kills." Eight million, maybe even 12 million, tops. However, the long-awaited sequel didn't even crack $4 million. It debuted in fourth place with an estimated $3.8 million, about a third of what its most ardent supporters predicted. This despite an all-star cast and the relatively loyal fanbase of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.
What went awry? Several possibilities are listed below, but they all add up to the likelihood that Rodriguez no longer knows what his audience wants -- or what any other audience wants, for that matter. For instance:
No one cares about stunt casting. Following the standard set by "Machete," whose high-powered supporting cast included such unlikely stars as Lindsay Lohan and Robert De Niro, "Machete Kills" features such co-stars as Sofia Vergara, Mel Gibson, Vanessa Hudgens, Lady Gaga (in her first major film role), and Charlie Sheen, who, in the spirit of the film, acts under his more Latin-sounding birth name, Carlos Estevez. Of course, any viewer so superficial as to find Charlie Sheen's presence intriguing enough to prompt a ticket purchase probably isn't going to know who Carlos Estevez really is. And none of the rest of these guest stars is a big box office draw on his or her own.
A cult movie got even cult-ier. "Machete Kills" is a sequel to an in-joke movie based on a fake trailer in another movie. The number of viewers in on the joke was always going to be small, but three years later, interest is even lower. "Machete" opened with $11.4 million on the way to a total gross of $26.6 million in America and a worldwide total of $44.1 million. "Machete Kills," with its opening below $4 million, will be lucky to earn half as much.
Political satire is what closes Saturday night. Behind all the vengeance and bloodshed, "Machete" had some surprisingly cogent political points to make about the issue of immigration. There's some of that in "Machete Kills" as well, not that anyone went to see either movie because of its polemic. Viewers just want the vengeance and bloodshed, and to the extent they feel they're being preached to, they'll stay home.
Weak buzz. "Machete Kills" had terrible reviews and weak word-of-mouth. Not that those things usually matter for an exploitation movie, but when a film is a hard R like this one, it needs to do all it can to attract an adult audience, which is the audience most likely to take seriously what critics have to say. Unfortunately...
Strong competition.... all the adults decided they'd rather see "Captain Phillips" or "Gravity," two movies with very strong buzz (especially about their awards prospects), positive reviews, and ecstatic word-of-mouth. It was bad timing for "Machete Kills" to open opposite such films.
Age before beauty. Yes, Trejo has had an admirable career as a professional badass for 30 years. It's no wonder Rodriguez created Machete for him to play. But the actor is 69 now (older than Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger) and he appears sluggish and paunchy in "Machete Kills." No one can fault him for wanting to get his last shot at leading-man glory while he can, but no one would blame him either for deciding to hang up his action-hero spurs.
The sad thing is, once the weekend's final figures are in, "Machete Kills" may not even be able to boast a fourth-place debut. It's in a close three-way race for fourth with holdovers "Runner Runner" ($3.73 million) and "Prisoners" ($3.67 million). Those Sunday estimates are close enough that any one of them could come out on top by the time the weekend's final figures are in.
The other sad thing is that Rodriguez seems to have had no idea how little appeal his film had even for Spanish-speaking audiences who might be sympathetic to his political critique. But as those audiences have shown clearly over the last few weeks, the movies they want to see aren't political satires disguised as blood-drenched revenge sagas. They want to see movies like "Instructions Not Included" and "Pulling Strings," traditional comic melodramas with family values and no content that will scare children or sweet old abuelas. Those two movies even drew Anglo crossover viewers, something Rodriguez used to be able to do with ease. It's not clear whom he made "Machete Kills" for, but whoever it was, they didn't show up.