Philosophical question here. If someone deliberately tries to make a bad movie and succeeds gloriously, have they done something good?
To understand the background for the recently released Machete Kills, you have to start a couple films ago in 2007’s Grindhouse. The directors of the film put trailers for fake movies in between each of Grindhouse’s segments, one of which for an over-the-top parody of 70’s exploitation films starring the film industry’s biggest “That One Guy”, Danny Trejo. I imagine director Robert Rodriguez had planned to leave it at that, but the trailer turned out to be surprisingly popular, so of course they turned it into a movie.
And a wonderful movie it was. Freed from the standard filmmaking constraints of “making sense” and “not being totally stupid”, 2010’s Machete was a celebration of wild badassery and rampant sex, forming a modern take on the blaxploitation craze while straddling the line of parody the whole way through. Sporting more fake blood than that weird uncle of yours on Halloween and less plot sense than the ending to Mass Effect 3, Machete was such a beautifully dumb action movie that nevertheless has some real substance behind it.
So how exactly do you follow that up? How do you make a sequel based on a joke that’s already been told? Well, apparently, you make Machete Kills.
The obvious thing to do when creating a sequel to something where the main selling point is just how excessive everything is would be to just push the envelope even further. Take the dials that are already at eleven, and twist them up to 15 or so. Get the party loud enough to where you start blowing out your neighbor’s windows. Machete Kills, on the other hand, tones things down considerably. It’s like the neighbor comes over and politely asks you to turn your music down, and you actually listen. Who even does that?!
But yeah, the sequel is much less extreme than the original was. The violence is less inventive and more restrained, the sexual content is mostly gone, and many of the traditional ‘exploitation’ elements have just been forgotten. And honestly, that last one is probably the biggest factor dragging this movie down. While it never stops being so self-awarely redonkulous, Machete Kills does not seem to poke as much fun at its subject matter as its predecessor did. And when you’re not being tongue-in-cheek about many of the moments presented, it just kind of creates a bit of dissonance, like you’re expecting the viewer to take some of the craziest pieces seriously.
One of the biggest draws of the first Machete was getting name actors in the most bizarre roles, and in some senses, the casting of Machete Kills may be even better in that regard. Obviously, Danny “I can’t believe he’s finally getting a starring role” Trejo returns as the title character, with Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba also reprising their roles from the last film. They’re joined by Charlie Sheen making a four-course meal out of the scenery as President Rathcock, Mel Gibson hamming it up as one of the primary villains, and Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas all showing up and having nothing to do with anything really. But honestly, the stunt casting really works out well in this movie. Gibson in particular seemed to be having a huge amount of fun in his role, more so than in any other movie I’ve seen him in.
All in all, Machete Kills seems to lack the spirit the original had. They’re both stupid frenzied movies, to be sure, but the sequel doesn’t quite feel as personal as the previous one did. The first Machete had a surprising amount of substance for what it was. It was a movie with things to say, and while it said them by essentially screaming obscenities into a bullhorn, its content all worked well together, fitting the pieces into a very solid whole. Machete Kills, on the other hand, seems much more disjointed and indecisive. Events seem to happen randomly, the tone and themes vary wildly and drop easily, and there are a lot of characters and plot points that never seem to connect with the main plot. That’s not to say there’s nothing of value here; there are a couple of smart things the movie does, particularly one where the ending connects with what seemed to be a throwaway gag in the beginning in such a major way. But for the most part, it feels a lot like they were just throwing ideas out there and not paying attention to what actually worked together, rather than building a cohesive whole.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. It’s not. It’s alright, if you’re into action fare and don’t mind a healthy dose of deliberate stupidity. Problem is, it’s just not as good as the first one, and since the movie seems to operate with the assumption that you’ve already watched that movie, well, why would you not just go for that instead?