"Machete Kills" Signals Death Rattle For Trivial Franchise

The original “Machete” was a marginal pleasure, a decent joke told competently if unnecessarily. As an expanded take on the “fake” trailer than ran in front of “Grindhouse” in 2007, “Machete” sent up genre flicks lovingly, but its running time was unwieldy and, bizarrely, it wasn’t married to the schlocky, grimy, retrograde exploitation tropes that audiences expected. After a wondrously ludicrous opening, featuring all the promised scratches, pops and narrative nonsense, the pic became a rather ordinary-looking action film. A modest entertainment that screamed one-off.

Enter “Machete Kills.” In typical sequel fashion, it’s more (but less) of the same, quickly establishing its place as one of the laziest films of the year – one that’s sure to disappoint just about everyone. This time around, the stunt casting is so poorly realized that actors pop in and out of the film at random, the story apparently stitched together according to actors’ schedules. That Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas all play the same character – literally – sums the film up nicely.

Director Robert Rodriguez (“Desperado,” “Sin City”) tips his hand early, kicking things off with a trailer for the next (third) entry. Not only is the trailer the best thing about “Machete Kills,” but by establishing “Machete Kills Again…In Space” as the next chapter, it removes any suspense about where the next 100 minutes is going to take us.

The smartest thing that screenwriter Kyle Ward does is kill off Jessica Alba’s character immediately, sparing us from another typically wooden performance on her behalf. With Machete’s girlfriend-slash-partner dispatched by a masked man, our hero should be primed to kick all kinds of ass. He’s recruited by the President (Charlie Sheen, brilliantly billed as Carlos Estévez, his birth name) and sent to Mexico to exact vengeance on a Mexican crime syndicate run by a schizophrenic, Mendez (Demián Bichir).

All of this is appropriately wacky – at least initially – but someone forgot to tell their lead that isn’t another one of his straight-to-DVD gigs. Danny Trejo is asleep at the wheel from the word “go,” completely uninterested in a film that hinges on his comically stoic demeanor. Instead of his intense, steely glare, we’re greeted with an entirely phoned-in performance that barely qualifies as a performance at all. It’s hard to blame the star for succumbing to the pic’s lifeless, haphazard screenplay, but Trejo doesn’t even summon the minimum amount of enthusiasm. Why should we?

Michelle Rodriguez returns as the tough, eye-patched leader of a resistance movement, while Amber Heard joins the ensemble as a beauty queen-slash-spy. Mel Gibson’s turn as a wild-eyed, malevolent billionaire-terrorist, Luther Voz, is an especially strange career choice given his widely publicized meltdowns in recent years, but he’s one of the few cast members that commits to the absurdity.

Speaking of absurdity, “Machete Kills” inexplicably betrays its roots as a tribute to trashy 70s cinema and veers dangerously close to “Scary Movie” territory in acts two and three. It stops just short of the unfunny slapstick and pop culture references of those films, but it is largely unfunny and Kyle Ward’s tin ear for comedy is apparent from the outset. Apart from the “…In Space” trailer, there’s not a memorable laugh in the whole thing, despite Rodriguez’s best attempts to elicit chortles from the obscene level of gore.

The choppiness of the narrative is the film’s ultimate undoing, as it’s never able to find anything resembling a rhythm. Trejo’s disinterest is only magnified by the revolving door of supporting players, and Gibson’s late game theatrics only provide so much intrigue.

One thing a “Machete” film can’t afford to do is bore its audience, and that’s exactly what happens here. We’ve seen its high points before – the original “Grindhouse” trailer was probably as far as Rodriguez needed to take it – and its low points are the kind of moments that put palms to faces. That “Machete Kills Again…In Space” looks far more interesting that the rest of the movie is the only reason I’m the slightest bit interested in seeing these character again. But if I don’t, I’ll be just fine. We all will.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: October 11, 2013
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenwriter: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, Carlos Estevez, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Jessica Alba, Demián Bichir, Alexa Vega, Vanessa Hudgens, Cuba Gooding, Jr., William Sadler, Marko Zaror, Mel Gibson
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence throughout, language and some sexual content)