Fantastic Fest 2013 Review: Machete Kills

I’m always excited to begin Fantastic Fest, but the opening night film is usually a more marquee title, so it’s not going to be the sort of wild discovery we hope to make later this week. Regrettably, this year’s Fantastic Fest opens with a franchise property that is maybe in the spirit of Fantastic Fest, but doesn’t live up in the execution. Machete Kills is not the next great Grindhouse movie, but then neither was Machete itself. It breaks my heart too, because I am totally behind the concept of the Machete movies.

Machete should have been the true spawn of the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse. Instead it was a hodgepodge of funny gags with no energy in the action scenes. The scenes from the fake trailer didn’t even fit into the film built around them. All this is to say that Machete Kills is the true sequel to Machete. There’s a lot of clever gags but none of them flow in an energetic action scene.

Machete (Danny Trejo) has to go after Mendez the Madman (Demian Bichir) because he’s got a missile pointed at the U.S. Mendez has a split personality. The crazy guy has the bomb’s trigger attached to his heart so he can’t be killed. The other personality is a pretty reasonable, regretful man. When Mendez activates the bomb, Machete has 24 hours to get him to the border, while being pursued by Madam Desdemona (Sofia Vergara), a madam whose girl (Vanessa Hudgens) turned on her to give Machete information on Mendez’s whereabouts. Also on their tail is The Chameleon, who is played by a different actor in every scene he’s in.

The plot’s anarchy is respectable but I can’t say any of it is clever. Every single scene is a turn where the preceding scene is invalidated or a secret is revealed, and then they all draw guns. A surprising amount of the weapons and gadgets even come directly from previous Rodriguez movies though. Not even in an updating way, just exactly the same guns and contraptions you’ll recognize.

The story allows a lot of big actors to pop in for crazy cameos, but it doesn’t push any boundaries, defy any of our expectations about said stars, or add to any insane energy. Yes, Lady Gaga is a flamboyant character dressed outrageously. I’m not saying the characters have to forward the plot. I’m not that traditional. I’m on board for a loose narrative or abstract awesomeness, but it’s neither of those things. It’s just there. There is so much explaining of each character before they even show up. I get it, the actors only shoot for a day, but at least make the characters speak for themselves when they get there. Bichir is MVP of Machete Kills though. He plays the most memorable character, and that’s in a movie that also has women with machine gun boobs.

Any fun to be had with Machete Kills hinges on the film’s action, which is as slapdash as the first Machete. There are great ideas for inventive kills involving boats, helicopters and weaponized brassieres, but it seems like Rodriguez shot the bare minimum of footage that would capture that image, not quite enough to make an actual scene out of it. I know his aesthetic is to only shoot what you need and cut the fluff, but now he’s not quite including enough.

I’m also not saying the crazy action needs to be motivated by story and character. I’m not that traditional either. I like some good action for action’s sake too. I just want to see an entire sequence. I want a little geography to know where Machete’s enemies are coming from. Machete gets into a gunfight at Desdemona’s brothel and there isn’t even an exchange of gunfire, or a situation where Machete is cornered and needs to do something clever to escape. There’s a gag with the armed working girls and a gag with Machete and the window, and that’s it. It’s not a scene and I’m not sure it’s even a montage. It’s just stuff that happens in order.

I don’t want to spoil too much, because there are enough silly gags to keep the proceedings mildly amusing. They don’t flow from one kill to the next kill, but there is a series of amusing kills (because at least the film is honest about it’s title: Machete does kill). Unfortunately, all the CGI splatter makes it feel like they weren’t really trying anyway. Once we have a cool idea, let’s just paint it in the computers. Maybe I’m being selfish. I want to see them execute it practically for the sake of achieving something spectacular for posterity. CGI saves expense and danger and time so who am I to ask for more, some kind of ingrate? I guess I still want Desperado and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.

I can illustrate the problem with examples from Machete 1 though. There was that funny escape with the intestines, great. Then what? He fights Steven Seagal at the end and there’s barely a few clanking swords before it ends in an anti-climax. They didn’t even give us the one fight we were waiting for! They had the motorcycle jumping shot from the trailer but then they never did anything else with that weaponized dirtbike. How about a counterexample from Desperado? We know what guns are in the guitar case, so when the gunfight starts we can wait to see how he uses each one, and he does. That’s how you set up a crazy action scene.

One problem for which I have to cut them a little slack is: how much choreography can Danny Trejo learn? This isn’t The Matrix and the Troublemaker Studios approach to filmmaking certainly doesn’t allow for three months of martial arts training. They get a little more mileage out of Marko Zaror in Kills but only because he reappears so many times that eventually it amounts to a whole fight scene. Alexa Vega is awesome as a busty assassin of Desdemona’s. I would have liked to see more of her, maybe give one character more of the cool kills than just letting each character do one thing.

Several other actors have major roles that I wouldn’t want to spoil. Amber Heard does a good twist on her platinum blonde cover girl image. Mel Gibson gets to do a bit more than Seagal did, and about what Stallone got to do in Spy Kids 3, as far as an image changer. The returning Michelle Rodriguez gets to be badass, no surprise, but her big moment is something Robert Rodriguez has already done. As in, the exact same thing happened to another character in one of his other movies. I appreciate if a filmmaker has motifs and things they like to revisit, and maybe the thought is that this audience hasn’t seen that other movie, but we live in an age where you can’t count on slipping under the radar. Anyone can Google or tweet the Michelle Rodriguez climax and find the corresponding scene from another Robert Rodriguez movie.

Machete began in a world built around a cheap look. It started as a trailer with fake scratches for crying out loud, but it’s not cute anymore. It feels like an excuse for cheap green screen and CGI gore shots, but Robert Rodriguez has made much cheaper movies that had cohesive editing flow and thrilling action. I support the idea of Machete movies, I really do. They should make crazy action movies where anything goes and they don’t have to please anybody because Robert Rodriguez doesn’t answer to anybody anyway. I don’t feel that’s what they’re doing anymore. Now I feel like they’re just taking the easy way out. Machete Kills doesn’t make me need to see the next one, and we already know the next one is Machete Kills Again In Space. If the idea of Danny Trejo in space with machetes is no longer a must see, I don’t know what to believe in anymore. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.