At some point recently, someone noticed that people love watching terrible films.
Maybe it was the growing cult around Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a film so unintentionally awful that it continues to pack cinemas around the world; but B-grade film studios soon cottoned on to the fact that it’s much easier to convince audiences that a film is purposely bad than make one that’s good.
Japan brought us the likes of RoboGeisha and Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, Europe churned out Dead Snow and Iron Sky, and the US has given us Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and Sharknado. Each came with a knowing wink, and the joke wore thin pretty quickly. The joy of watching bad cinema has always stemmed from an admiration of the filmmakers’ earnestness, their authenticity. The moment they got in on the joke, the whole exercise became sad.
So, where in this pantheon does Machete Kills (opening today across Australia) fit?
A self-aware, intentionally-schlocky film becomes a different beast when it’s driven by an auteur. After all, we all know what a Robert Rodriguez film looks like: Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Once Upon a Time In Mexico, um, Shark Boy and Lava Girl. Best friends with Quentin Tarantino, the two paired up to make Grindhouse in 2007, a throwback to the old B-cinema drive-in double features of their youth. When you sat down to watch Grindhouse, you’d get Tarantino’s Death Proof followed by Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.
It was a fun exercise, because even in 2007 we weren’t yet saturated in ironic nostalgia, and this felt like a one-off. And who couldn’t enjoy the fake 1970s trailers that were made specially for the feature, such as Edgar Wright’s Don’t, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving, Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS, and Rodriguez’s own Machete? Not only were these throwbacks a relatively new concept, but they were also the right length: about two minutes a piece. Just the right time to hit the jokes without outstaying the welcome.
Which is why Rodriguez’s current turn is both baffling and inevitable. Spurred on by the extremely positive reaction to the Machete trailer—and not realising that the best thing going for it was its trailer length—Rodriguez decided to turn Machete into a full-blown feature film. The 2010 feature was serviceable, but gave us nothing we didn’t get from the original preview, save for an odd villainous turn from Robert De Niro and a hey-look-who-we-can-afford cameo from Lindsay Lohan.
It was safe to say that the joke had well and truly been played out, but we didn’t count on one thing: Rodriguez’s obsessive need to franchise his own creations. It’s why he completed his Sergio Leone-inspired El Mariachi trilogy, directed four Spy Kids instalments, produced both a sequel and a prequel to From Dusk Till Dawn, and is now at work on Sin City 2. His mission statement is “I just can’t leave well enough alone.”
Machete Kills is his nadir. This is Rodriguez finally going off the deep end and creating something that will surely only appeal to you if you also happen to be Robert Rodriguez.
Once again aping the film aesthetic of the 1970s, Rodriguez shoots on digital and applies a fake celluloid grain to the images, ensuring that the film looks neither attractive nor authentic.
Dangerous anti-hero loner Machete (Danny Trejo) once again kills people in moderately gory ways, either splitting them down the middle, decapitating them, or throwing them into helicopter blades. There are moments of inspiration in some of these kills, but not enough to hang an entire feature on.
Machete himself remains the stoic, growling lead. As refreshing as it may be to see Danny Trejo’s craggy, terrifying face in a lead role, Machete is not an interesting character. This is illustrated by how easily Rodriguez falls into the trap of reducing him to a catchphrase: in the first film, “Machete don’t text”, and now it’s “Machete don’t tweet”. Expect a “Machete don’t snapchat” in film three.
The upped stakes of this film seem to solely consist of its greater roster of fallen stars. Charlie Sheen (credited as “Carlos Estevez”) plays the US President, Cuba Gooding Jnr turns up for three seconds, and Mel Gibson looks fairly bored as the central villain.
By far the film’s biggest curiosity is how willing it is to rely on the knowing film reference. For a film that’s meant to feel as if it’s set in the 1970s, it’s filled with stunningly overt nods to Star Wars, Star Trek, Mad Max, and anything else that takes its fancy. The references are so awkward and forced, I suspect Kevin Smith would cringe. Hell, the makers of Epic Movie would cringe.
The obsessive compulsive franchiser side of Rodriguez has taken over, and the vast majority of the film’s story actually serves as a setup for the forthcoming third film, Machete In Space. We know this, because we’re treated to a trailer for this as-yet-unmade film even before we’ve seen Machete Kills. The Machete In Space trailer features the usual lightsaber jokes, a dated reference to The Man in the Iron Mask, and a joke about Justin Bieber that feels like a leftover from a Saturday Night Live sketch. It’s fascinating, but not entertaining, stuff.
The Machete films seem designed to deflect any and all criticisms from the off. Like Sharknado, it is deliberately created to be silly, and so any proclamation that the film is bad can be countered with “Duh, it was intentional.”
Unfortunately, this cover story has long-since expired. Everything we watch these days is an ironic throwback to something else, and the joke is over. It’s done. And given that’s all Machete Kills has going for it, it makes for a tedious 107 minutes. When Machete inevitably goes to space, let’s hope he stays there.
Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah
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