“Falsely advertised” was not a label you could have applied to 2010’s Machete. Was it lewd? Sure. Cholesterol-threateningly cheesy? Oh, most definitely. But any viewer that saw so much as a poster for the film couldn’t say they didn’t know exactly what they were getting into. True to its title, the movie did indeed star a man called Machete, whose preferred method of meting out justice relied on a weapon of the same name. He got the girls and killed the bad guys, just as the trailer said he would. Now comes the sequel, Machete Kills, in which Machete does just that.
The only thing that’s been actually misleading about the “Machete” series -since its conception as a mock “Coming Soon” attraction in 2007’s Grindhouse- is the sharpness implied by both the title and the original trailer. In a bite-sized chunk, Danny Trejo playing a laconic badass who has to stab, shoot and screw his way out of a web of seedy double-crossers and satirized immigration politics is pretty freaking hilarious. But like any SNL sketch or YouTube hit stretched out from bite-sized premise to feature-length film, the gag was at its most potent when enjoyed in a small dose.
Machete Kills risks further diluting the fun simply by giving us more Machete, as the idea of a schlock B-movie parody was barely sound enough to hold together over one film, let alone two. It’s a good thing then that director Robert Rodriguez, and first-time writer Kyle Ward, decided to take things in a different direction this time out. Oh sure, there’s still plenty of over-the-top violence, cheapo effects, and a rotating cast of recognizable actors spewing out dialogue that makes bathroom stall graffiti look nuanced. But Machete Kills takes things into some welcomely weird territory, pumping enough foul-mouthed fuel and fermented cheese into this jalopy of a franchise to keep it sputtering along for another 100 minutes.
A tragic loss for Machete at the hands of a group of lazer gun-wielding, luchador mask-wearing black-ops soldiers sends our ex-Federale/Interpol/I.C.E. hero on the warpath, leading him first to a cartel kingpin known as Mendez the Madman (Demian Bichir). At the behest of President Rathcock (played by newcomer Carlos Estevez), Machete is tasked with smuggling the psychotic Mendez out of Mexico alive, lest a bomb-trigger attached to his heart cause a nuclear missile to be express mailed to Washington. Along the way, Machete manages to cross paths with an undercover beauty queen, a face-changing assassin, and the madam of the deadliest little whorehouse in Mexico, all of whom keep the film safely within spitting distance of the next setpiece action scene.
For your average film director, that’s enough absurdity to sustain an entire picture, but for Rodriguez it’s just the starting blocks for a mad dash into the B-movie abyss. Around the halfway marker, things go from Midnight Run to Moonraker on a dime, and Rodriguez never looks back. The film opens with a trailer for the series’ third installment, Machete Kills Again…In Space, which initially comes off as a white flag of surrender, acknowledging that a complete trilogy would be unlikely, so this brief taste of Trejo in a spacesuit would be our consolation. That initial interpretation only proved more wrong by the minute, as Machete Kills confirms that Rodriguez is looking to see this gag through to the end. If nothing else, his commitment to the bit is unquestionable.
It’s just a shame that the joke itself isn’t more entertaining. By building a bricolage of batshit-craziness from a variety of already out-there sources (including, but not limited to: Smokin’ Aces, James Bond, and Star Wars), Machete Kills gives the appearance of variety, but filters everything through the same low-brow, low-bar sensibilities. The best jokes remember the original appeal of this type of drive-in trash, taking shots at theater gimmicks, or stunt casting Mel Gibson as a psychic psychotic looking to start a spacefaring master race. Trejo’s cue card-worth of spoken dialogue has the right of it, as the film is rarely at its most enjoyable whenever anyone is talking. The exception is Bichir, who’s really just terrific as a mustache-twirling villain, chewing through the scenery with the abandon of a man who goes to the same dentist as 007’s Jaws.
The mixtape approach to plot means you’re never quite sure which Machete you’ll get in a given moment. Some will thrill at the Mex-ploitation violence and viscera the first film delivered, while others might enjoy the shifts towards spy and space genres later on, with Machete employing a couple nifty gadgets to liven up scene after scene of bad guys getting turned into henchman hamburger. Junk food is probably the most accurate comparison point for Machete Kills, and all the quick, empty satisfaction it delivers. Disposability, rather than being a weakness, has proven to be Machete’s secret weapon: you get your fill, forget about it, and by the time the next one comes out, you’re not quite sure what you’ll be getting, but do know it’s exactly what you paid for…for better or worse.