'Machete Kills' Review: The Cast Is A Scream As Robert Rodriguez Spins His Wheels

In Machete Kills, director Robert Rodriguez once again celebrates guns, babes, and manly men. This sequel to Machete finds many ways to combine those three factors, offering a new permutation every few minutes. The action is dumb and goofy and very self aware, and Machete Kills is occasionally kind of a blast. The cast is game for anything, and few actors stick around long enough to wear out their welcome.

If only the same could be said for the film, which is long, soggy, and distracted by it's own excess. Machete Kills is a two-hour Robot Chicken special that features humans instead of action figures, and its schtick wears thin well before everyone runs out of energy. 

In 1992 Rodriguez hit with the feature El Mariachi. The ultra-low-budget film was exploitative by design, with Rodriguez hoping it would have all the right ingredients to catch the attention of the Mexican video market. He's been making similar "exploitation by design" ever since, with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success. I've grown wary of Rodriguez, because he seem to have little interest in change, growth, or new ideas. (Sin City standing as an exception.) He's working the same mode now that he was twenty years ago, and few of his films have that accidental brilliance that makes true exploitation so much fun, and so effective.

This film finds Machete (Danny Trejo) recruited by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen) to find a Mexican warlord who is making trouble with the cartels. The guy has a nuke pointed at Washington, and ties to a well-spoken arms inventor (Mel Gibson). Demian Bichir (Che, Savages) is the warlord, and he's a hoot playing multiple personalities, always fully in the best silly spirit of the film.

Machete Kills recycles a lot of old Rodriguez ideas: the "c**k and balls" gun seen in Desperado and From Dusk 'Till Dawn, the roadhouse whorehouse from the latter film, the tears of blood from Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. There's a toenail-painting sequence that pal Quentin Tarantino might like and explicit nods to Star Wars, Star Trek, and Mad Max, just for starters. Why is this movie two hours long? Cut out some of that fanboy fluff and Machete Kills could be as lean as its title implies, and far more enjoyable.

But give Rodriguez credit: who else was ready to photograph Danny Trejo like a larger-than-life sex god? That, and the director's dedication to making movies for a Latino audience, make his work unusual in an ever-more homogenous blockbuster landscape.

If only that made for a better movie. Like its forbear, Machete Kills wants to be exploitation and message movie. A constant stream of self-aware jokes and irony make messages of immigration and Mexican/American policy reform impossible to take any more seriously than the rest of the film. What could be a whiff of satire turns into a big comic fart as Charlie Sheen bellows "I'm the President of the United fuckin' States!" just before signing Machete's citizenship papers with a giant rubber stamp that says "US Citizen."

The tone grates after a while, as the only thing Rodriguez truly seems to believe in is that aforementioned love triangle: guns, babes, dudes. The action is no solace; rarely well-staged, it all looks cheap and shoddy, with Birdemic-level digital effects. The line between "parodying crap" and actual crap can be thin, and Machete Kills regularly trips over it.

For all the lousy staging, dingy effects, and stale jokes, there's still that cast. The actors seem to be having an effin' blast. I had a great time watching Cuba Gooding Jr., Amber Heard, Antonio Banderas, Walton Goggins, Sofia Vergara (who really goes for it), and William Sadler. Many are only around for a few minutes, but their scenes have great energy and genuine laughs. Most of Gibson's scenes hit, too. He's basically a Bond villain, with a lot of Machete Kills feeling like bargain-basement Moonraker. Gibson's character eventually falls victim to the film's all-or-nothing ethos, too, and the overkill left me thinking I'd had enough well before the movie ended.

/Film score: 5 out of 10