Machete Kills (2013)

Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, November 2013

Synopsis: After Machete’s lover, immigration agent Santana, is murdered by weapons smugglers, he is asked by the US President to stop Mexican madman Marcos Mendez launching a missile aimed at Washington. With Agent ‘Miss San Antonio’ as his handler, Machete tracks Mendez to his base. The trigger for the missile launch is attached to Mendez’s heart, with a 24-hour countdown. Machete abducts Mendez, after killing his henchman Zaror and many others. Machete brings Mendez back across the US border, hoping that Luther Voz, who designed the heart detonator, can disarm it. A clone of Zaror kills Mendez, and Voz (with Mendez’s heart still beating in a jar) reveals his plot to take off to a space station with a selected crew (possibly to include Machete) while missiles left with puppets (like Mendez) ‘purge’ the world. Machete escapes, and turns to one-eyed Mexican revolutionary Luz and her Network for help to stop Voz. When Machete’s one-time enemy Osiris fails to disarm Mendez’s heart, but redeems himself by taking a bullet intended for Machete, Machete realises it was Voz who killed Santana. Machete burns Voz’s face in a duel, and defuses the launched missile itself while riding it through the air. The treacherous Miss San Antonio shoots out Luz’s second eye, but is killed by her. Voz brings a frozen Luz aboard his rocket and heads into space. Machete accepts a Presidential mission to pursue Voz beyond Earth’s orbit.

Review: Machete Kills is knowingly disposable – so much so that it opens with a trailer for its own follow-up, Machete Kills… In Space, which is evidently, like Critters 4 (1992), Leprechaun 4 (1996), Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) and Jason X (2001), to boldly go into the last refuge for franchises long since devoid of more earthbound ideas. Of course, Robert Rodriguez’s ‘original’ Machete (2010) was itself born out of a fake trailer that screened between the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature in schlock-pastiching diptych Grindhouse (2007). So as a sequel to a film expansively reconstructed from a trailer for a non-existent adult Seventies actioner whose eponymous, ultraviolent, oversexed hero (played by Danny Trejo) first appeared in Rodriguez’s family-friendly Spy Kids series, Machete Kills comes with something of an identity crisis – which might explain the reflexive presence of double-agents, cloned armies, multiple-personality villains and a chameleonic bounty hunter (played variously by Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lady Gaga and Antonio Banderas!). Much as Marco Mendez (Demián Bichir) has lost his way – and his mind – trying to work out if he is a cartel boss, a revolutionary, or Mexico’s first and only undercover spy, the film itself dons (and discards) one sub-generic guise after another with mercurial delirium.

Certainly Machete Kills boasts all the bandito badassery, cross-border cartoonishness and gory grotesquery of the first film, but this time around the space-opera preview at the beginning primes us to expect this most grounded of heroes to go, both metaphorically and literally, off the planet. Machete Cortez, now an agent for the US government caught up in a plot to destroy the world, travels through a postmodern landscape whose referential breadth extends beyond the usual retro tough-guy flicks to Dr Strangelove (1964), Moonraker (1979) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The casting of Mel Gibson as giggling arch-villain Luther Voz just adds to the madness, even if he eventually merges (thanks to injury) into his titular role in The Man Without A Face (1993) – much as Robert De Niro’s bent politician in the first Machete was to become, however momentarily, a Taxi Driver.

Machete Kills is an endearingly silly mash-up of genre’s bargain-bin discards. There is still some commentary on American’s exploitation of her Southern neighbours to be found here, but this seems as throwaway as everything else in a film which simultaneously showcases a large Hispanic cast while playing to every broad Mexican stereotype under the sun. Yet where Rodriguez may lack the subtlety needed to be an effective satirist, his dizzying juxtapositions of cinema’s trashiest tropes at times make him a master surrealist. Witness the scene in which Machete cradles a jar containing Mendez’s still-beating heart – which is also a bomb detonator – while being driven around in a vehicle expressly modelled on Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder (“Yes, I’m a Star Wars fan”, admits Voz). Machete Kills may outstay its welcome by some 20 minutes, but as pro-marijauna President Rathcock (Carlos Estévez, aka Charlie Sheen) might say, this is good shit.

Anton Bitel