In retrospect, it’s almost unfathomable that the second entry in the Machete series has arrived, as the laws of Hollywood business typically would prevent even the first film from coming into realization. Considering Grindhouse was the first major financial disappointment for Quentin Tarantino, and the first fracture in the relationship between Robert Rodriguez and The Weinstein Company, many within the business were quick to dismiss the film as an experimental failure and move on with their careers. However, aside from an iconic performance by Kurt Russell and great gore effects, the true highlight of the film was the faux trailers, exalting ridiculous, sleazy concepts that could have conceivably existed in the heydey of ’80s trashploitation, and among those, none shined as bright or with as much potential as Robert Rodriguez’s Machete trailer. In an age without the connectivity of the internet, per chance Machete would have never became an actual film, bandied about in fan debates and searches for “lost footage”, but the fans spoke and 20th Century Fox answered the call. Having made four times it’s production budget, the film was a success, but not necessarily a smash, especially when you figure in the cost of marketing.
So when Open Road Studios gave Machete Kills its life, one must expected that Rodriguez would go-for-broke, trying to top the insanity of the first film while taking advantage of the grindhouse aesthetic and scene-chewing performances that high profile actors may not always be able to capitalize on. However, Machete Kills, although conceptually much more absurd and chaotic, is fundamentally more tame than it’s predecessor, and trades in winking jabs at the niche that it homaged for an unwavering feeling of straightfaced acceptance. And while when the film does hit its stride- particularly in the third act- there is a plethora of enjoyment to be had, the rest of the film suffers from a wealth of extraneous characters, boring dialogue and not-necessarily-jarring violence and subplots, especially when enhanced by embarrassing CGI and green-screen. For a sequel, this doesn’t bode well for the franchise, especially due to the lack of carryover from the previous film, and as a result, there’s not much to get excited about in Machete Kills aside from a small appearance by a recognizable face.
Obviously, Robert Rodriguez is a skilled filmmaker, and a brilliantly resourceful one at that, but with this film, there’s an aura of by-the-numbers mechanics to the procedure, as there’s never a sense of passion within the dialogue from Kyle Ward or the action sequences, many of which are significantly shorter than Rodriguez is best known for. The cinematography, also by Rodriguez, is incredibly uninteresting, rarely forming a visually interesting frame or color scheme, whether intentional or not, although this does improve in the third act as well and things start approaching purely gonzo territory. In fact, the most commendable aspect of the film, aside from select performances, is the music from Carl Thiel and Robert Rodriguez, which does accentuate the high-concept glory when need be and keeps the audio aspect of the film consistently engaging.
Judging the acting for this film is always tricky, as you can rarely judge a performance in a film that, in one way or another, is intentionally going to be bad and schlocky. However, in that sense, that separates the acting crowd into two: those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t. Most of the actors in the film get it and are successful to varying degrees. At the lesser side of the spectrum, Danny Trejo is still going through the motions, but even is given less here than in the previous film, and Amber Heard seems to be a different actress in a different film for each act. Even Michelle Rodriguez, a highlight of the original, feels watered down and streamlined in this film, only there for continuity sake and as a deus ex machina. As for the greater performances in the film, Demian Bichir is wonderful as Mendez, playing incredibly against type and gives one of the most enjoyable villain performances of the year. However, the most valuable player of the film is Mel Gibson as “Voz”, the main villain of the piece who, despite his personal troubles in reality, can still relish in a completely batshit role with a contagiously enthusiastic smirk throughout, especially as the science fiction elements rise to baffling proportions. The cameos revolving around the “El Chameleon” character are enjoyable for what they are, and William Sadler, Sofia Vergara, “Carlos Estevez” and Tom Savini are delightful in their smaller roles.
However, even with this cavalcade of over-the-top performances, Machete Kills is too uninteresting and typical to truly excel at it’s intended level, instead feeling like a half-measure in a series that requires double-measures. For every explosion or death that should seem gloriously absurd, it’s presented so quickly and with such little focus that it’s difficult to root and revel within the staged carnage. Rodriguez is definitely capable of pushing the limits of taste and conceivable action, and has the skill and control to pull it off, but this film is so uneven and reckless in execution that one must only assume that he cared so little for the script himself that he reacted appropriately. I’m sure for many, the performances will be worth the admission price alone, but on its own merits, Machete Kills stalls on entry and never truly picks up speed, and in fact, is often left in the dust of it’s beautifully bonkers predecessor.