Monday, November 4, 2013
Blogorium Review: Machete Kills
I really wish Machete Kills was a better movie than it is. It's just a bummer, because Machete is dumb fun: a trashy, grindhouse-esque slice of Mexploitation, with a stacked cast and a sense of reckless abandon that manages to be coherent in spite of itself. And Machete Kills? Well, let's just say being able to shoot anything at any time digitally has really ruined Robert Rodriguez...
Machete (Danny Trejo) is dealing with loss when he's summoned by the President to stop a crazy drug lord Marcos Mendez (Demian Bichir) from launching a nuclear missile at Washington, D.C. When he easily infiltrates the compound, he discovers that Mendez has connected the firing mechanism to his heart, so if he dies, the missile launches. Machete must bring him back across the border from Mexico, keep him alive, disarm the bomb, and contend not only with the cartels, but a gang on vengeful prostitutes and an assassin who can take on any face. And that's not even taking into account the person who gave Mendez the missile...
The problem is that it all looks like bargain basement, Syfy Channel / Asylum Pictures digital skullduggery. The "inside out" gun, no exaggeration, looks like a slightly bloodier version of what happens when a Dalek shoots someone on Doctor Who. There's so much CGI blood in this movie that, when added to the copious green-screening, makes Machete Kills look like something that a film student would make over the course of a weekend. I understand that Rodriguez can make a movie like Machete Kills on the cheap, but it doesn't have to look this cheap.
And before you say "but Cap'n, it's an exploitation movie! It's SUPPOSED to look like shit!" allow me to remind you that this is the same Robert Rodriguez that made Planet Terror, which has a comparable level of carnage and still looks like a movie, not something that's supposed to sit next to Birdemic in the $7.99 bin at Best Buy in two weeks. Machete Kills looks less realistic than Spy Kids 3-D, and I'm positive there are at least a few 100% practical sets in Machete Kills. Most of them don't look like it (and at least two of them are just a bar and restaurant somewhere in Austin), and it feels like every driving scene was done in front of the green screen in Rodriguez's studio.
Machete Kills doesn't feel like a movie; it feels like a lark that Rodriguez (or, more likely, 20th Century Fox) expects people to pay for. Rodriguez was probably more than happy to make it, even if it feels less complete than the last Resident Evil movie (which, if you remember, I likened to an extended trailer for the inevitable next Resident Evil movie). At least Resident Evil had the decency not to open the film with a trailer for the next film.
That's right, Machete Kills opens with a trailer for Machete Kills Again: In Space, which arguably manages to look even worse than the movie you're about to watch, but only because it's all in front of green screens. It promises the exact same cast and already sounds like the director doesn't care ("And Lady Gaga as... whoever Lady Gaga wants to be!"), and lets you know this is where we're going. Just bear with Machete Kills as it spins its wheels for 100 minutes, because at the end of the tunnel we're going to space! With lightsaber machetes and a guy in a silver mask played by Leonardo DiCaprio (* Casting Subject to Change) plus Machete fights clone Machete!
And then we have to watch Machete Kills, which would have been not so good even without the promise that there isn't going to be an ending. Right out of the gate the second problem with Rodriguez's "shoot anywhere, any time with your friends" approach is apparent. It's true that his casts are stacked (no pun intended about Sofia Vergara there), but if you're expecting to see many of them on screen together, don't hold your breath. He's taken the Sin City approach of "shoot when you're available" to the extreme, and for the first time it's readily apparent in Machete Kills.
When I saw Sin City, I didn't know that Mickey Rourke and Rutger Hauer weren't in the same physical location for the scene between the two characters. It's just the two of them sitting on opposite beds across from each other. Using green screen trickery, Rodriguez convinces you that two actors who filmed on different days are talking to each other and are inhabiting the same space. Only later did I find out they weren't acting against each other, and it was an impressive trick.
On the other hand, I could tell almost immediately that the one day Jessica Alba was available to shoot was not a day Mel Gibson was there to kill her character (SPOILER) and that the reason that Gibson's character, Luther Voz was wearing a luchadore mask (the only time he wears it) was to disguise the fact that they weren't on screen together. If that were the only case of scheduling tomfoolery in the film, I'd forgive it, because Rodriguez manages to use the mask as a visual bridge later in the film, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.
It's clear that most of the people in the film came in for one or two days, filmed all of their scenes, and probably never interacted with Danny Trejo. The character of El Chameleon is a perfect example: this is a super assassin who changes faces after every kill, which is a great way to include Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas in the movie, except that the first two are in scenes with people who have nothing to do with the story, Lady Gaga makes a grand entrance in a gas station that looks fake and then is driving in front of a green screen, and Banderas and Trejo are barely in the same scene together. And this is a character who decides to collect a bounty to kill Machete.
Well, it should be that, but instead it feels like "hey, Lady Gaga, come shoot whenever you're available and I'll make you a badass assassin with a cool poster and put you in the trailer." Goggins is in one scene. Gooding is in three, and Banderas is in two. They're all really fun to see, but they don't have any time to make an impression. Machete Kills is too busy cramming in plot to have anything good to do with the great cast Rodriguez assembled. Most of the movie is Danny Trejo and Demian Bichir (Che, Weeds) on the road, saddled with a dumb subplot about how Mendez has a split personality that conveniently shifts whener the story needs it to.
It would be easier to dismiss Machete Kills outright if it there weren't some actual highlights to the film, chief among them the commercially toxic Mel Gibson. I understand that mentioning Mel Gibson goes over about as well as invoking the name of Roman Polanski, but the truth is that as super villain / inventor Luther Voz, Gibson is great fun to watch. It seems like Rodriguez and screenwrite Kyle Ward poured all of their good ideas into the character, from his obsession with Star Wars to his admiration for Machete, and I have to say that it's fun to see Mel Gibson playing slightly comedic again. They manage to sneak in Mad Max and Man Without a Face references without being too obvious, and he's definitely a highlight in the film.
The other high point is Marko Zaror, who plays Zaror, a genetically engineered army of clones created by Voz to battle Machete and to protect him when he leaves the nuclear ravaged Earth for the safety of his space station (aha, see where that's going?). Zaror is a Chilean martial artist and has a cult following among actions fans, so it's nice to see Rodriguez give him several opportunites to go mano-a-mano with Danny Trejo (I don't need to tell you that he's spot on in the title role, do I?). Also good are Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, and I guess Tom Savini, although the three of them are in so little of the film that they don't register for long stretches. And yes, Tom Savini plays the same character who killed Machete's brother in the first film, but he's had a change of heart and, well, it's just an excuse to bring him back. Until I looked at IMDB, Like Lady Gaga, Sheen / Estevez doesn't make much of an impression. And William Sadler? I forgot he was even in the movie...
It's a little maddening that there's so much of this cheap, boring, over-complicated movie to have to sit through in order to have a handful of bright spots, and even though Machete Kills barely made a dent with audiences, I somehow suspect Rodriguez made the film cheaply enough to have already shot most of Machete Kills Again: In Space. But I have to be honest and say I don't want to watch it. I didn't like, but respected Sin City. I loved Planet Terror. I liked Machete. I disliked almost all of Machete Kills, and looking at how digital filmmaking has slowly turned Rodriguez from a director who made movies with what he had to a guy who can literally use anything and shoot on anybody's schedule, all to his detriment, I'm not so keen on his movies anymore. It's like he's become a parody of his own Grindhouse segment, and we seem more and more distant from something like Desperado or The Faculty, which looked and felt like actual movies. Machete Kills feels like an experiment, and not the good kind.