(2013)4Cammila CollarReviewing Machete Kills is easy: If you liked Machete, you'll love Machete Kills. And if you thought the first Machete had potential but sort of drooped in places, you can take heart that the sequel is a lot tighter and more consistently kick-ass. While true to the same spirit of packing in big thrills on a small budget, Machete Kills is a more successful movie all around -- cleverer, more violent, and more ridiculous than its predecessor.
If this assessment fulfills all of your needs as a reader and possible viewer, feel free to stop reading now. You see, it's the relative scale offered by the framework of a franchise that makes this review so easy. Explain whether a sequel is better or worse than the previous installments, and you've mostly done your job for potential audience members. But reviewing the first Machete movie provided copious existential wangst for many critics, confounded by the task of explaining the "quality" of a movie that strove to be silly, explosive, and gleefully over-the-top. It really shouldn't be that hard, especially considering that the first Machete actually fell short in some of these regards -- it aimed for never-a-dull-moment and didn't always succeed. But, of course, plenty of reviewers got caught up in blabbering about whether such a movie was true "grind-house cinema" or merely a meta, self-aware, postmodern tribute. As if this semantic crap matters to anyone who actually likes thrill-a-minute grind-house cinema in the first place; a movie that achieves a thrill-a-minute is a success by the rubric of the genre, "tribute" or no.
And indeed, Machete Kills prevails by these standards. Picking up where the first movie left off, the story follows the migrant worker turned super agent known only as Machete (Danny Trejo) as he is tasked with a mission to save the U.S. from getting blown up by a missile that was stolen by a Mexican drug kingpin (Demián Bichir). It should be noted that Machete has become such an infamous badass that he gets this mission straight from United States president Rathcock (Charlie Sheen -- credited here by his Hispanic birth name, Carlos Estevez, a tongue-in-cheek move that could possibly be related to director Robert Rodriguez's historic distaste for unions and their rules, like SAG's rigid take on stage names. This goes to show Rodriguez's credibility as possibly the only real "grind-house" director working in Hollywood, but let's not get ahead of ourselves). Machete takes the job, encountering assassins, mercenaries, and evil geniuses along the way, played delightfully by the likes of Amber Heard, Mel Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Hudgens, Sofía Vergara, and many others.
Robert Rodriguez wasn't just the writer and director here; he was also the cinematographer and editor, and he wrote and performed the score. In addition, he's been known to act as his own camera and Steadicam operator, and nobody should be surprised if it turns out that he personally designed the filters that make his digital photography look more like film than movies by guys like Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, because Rodriguez started shooting in digital more than ten years ago. His "Ten-Minute Film School" shorts have been detailing the maverick efficiency he uses to make awesomely wild movies with a limited crew and a small budget for as far back as 1992. In short: If anybody can claim to be a genuine grind-house director, it's Rodriguez. Maybe in the era of Sharknado-style purposeful camp, it's easy to shout, for lack of anything better to say, that this is a bad thing. But any true fan of the '70s and '80s exploitation flicks Rodriguez was inspired by knows that those B-movies were, in fact, frequently very self-aware. How could a picture that deliberately seeks shock value not be? But then, it's not usually fans of the genre who make these kinds of asinine complaints. Fans just know a good shoot-'em-up when they see one.