(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m a long-time fan of Robert Rodriguez’s films (all the way back to Desperado on VHS), but it sure looks as if he’s spent the last decade repeating himself with a long series of sequels and spin-offs. Machete Kills is the third film to be spun off from 2007’s Grindhouse, and it suggests that the joke has been played out. Not that the film itself is unpleasant to watch: As you may expect from its neo-grindhouse inspiration, it’s suitably over-the-top, allowing Rodriguez and his ensemble cast to have a lot of fun by sending up an assortment of action movie clichés. Danny Trejo is compelling as usual as the titular Machete, but it’s a toss-up as to whether he’s having as much fun as Mel Gibson (as a Bond-grade villain), Charlie Sheen (as a lecherous President) or Sofia Vergara (using her shrill persona to good effect, for once). Even Lady Gaga gets a role as a shape-shifting assassin. The action gets silly quickly and never lets basic disbelief being an obstacle. It’s all good fun, except that Rodriguez’s low-budget aesthetics (tight framing, cheap special effects, lazy blocking, editing that allows actors to share a scene without ever having been in the same room together) are less satisfying than one would expect… especially once they’re repeated too often. Rodriguez can command bigger budgets than he used to at the beginning of his career –he should use that power for a few money shots. Still, despite the over-the-top action, shameless exploitation (often going straight to comic parody) and self-aware ridiculousness, there’s a sense that Machete Kills is a bit too big for its aw-shucks attitude. By focusing on the comedy, it even loses a bit of the edge that the first Machete had, and the focus on violence while downplaying the nudity is a step in the wrong direction. It’s too long for its own good, and in stretching out some of its duller stretches, invites tiresomeness. It probably doesn’t help that this is Rodriguez’s umpteenth return to the same source: For all of the chuckles and I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this outrageousness, by the time the end credits roll, there’s no need for a third Machete outing. Let’s leave well-enough alone and let’s hope that Rodriguez does something a bit fresher for his next effort.
(In theaters, September 2010) When a trailer for then-fake film Machete appeared attached to Grindhouse three years ago, the joke worked pretty well. But would it survive being turned into a feature-length film? As it turns out, Machete the film is what Machete the fake-film trailer had promised: A fully entertaining mixture of exploitation filmmaking, populist indignation and self-aware cinematic winks. Bolstered by one of the most amazing cast in recent memory, Machete finally gives a much-deserved featured role to the mesmerising Danny Trejo, with fun parts for such notables as Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Lindsey Lohan, Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez. Everyone looks like they’re having fun, which is in keeping with the film’s mexploitation theme: if you’re going to make a movie that plays to the audience’s bases desires for nudity, action and revenge, why not do it well? Writer/Director/Editor Robert Rodriguez certainly knows what he’s doing: the editing lingers on the nudity, stays long enough on the action and flashes past the goriest violence so that we can enjoy the film’s dark humour without being repulsed by its excesses. (Rodriguez may not have been the film’s sole director, but it’s unmistakably his film.) It’s a terrific piece of grindhouse cinema, but it comes with quite a bit of populist decency. The Latino diaspora is colourfully represented by food, more food, Catholic symbolism and a distinctive aesthetics: Add to that a striking case for respecting immigrant rights, and Machete becomes a film that speaks loudly about basic human rights while still delivering a hefty dose of disreputable entertainment. In short, it’s a film that works on a number of levels, not the least of which is a considerable amount of sheer movie-going pleasure. Knowing Rodriguez’s considerable personal charm and fondness for explaining the movie-making process, I can’t wait until it comes out on video.