Robert Rodriguez’s unnecessary movie gets an unnecessary sequel

I like Robert Rodriguez. El Mariachi his debut is still a blast (and became a blueprint for indie filmmakers everywhere who misguidedly believed his success was easy to repeat). Armed with a bigger budget he remade El Mariachi as Desperado for better and worse. His entry in Four Rooms is the only decent part about that awful vanity project. Sin City is awesome and I’m even a sort-of defender of Once Upon a Time in Mexico .

Then something happened. Maybe the computers got too big and too expensive. With the Spy Kids movies Rodriguez found he could make slick cheap kiddie fare and rake in the dollars. So he funneled the same CGI madness into everything he makes starting with Planet Terror his half of the Rodriguez-Tarantino double feature Grindhouse . (As each year passes the only parts of that monstrosity that people seem to enjoy are the fake trailers stuck into the middle.)

One of those fake trailers was for Machete about a um machete-wielding Mexican ex-Federale (Danny Trejo) with a face like an old catcher’s mitt and a thirst for justice. He chopped off heads and bedded scores of women. It was two minutes of awesome. Apparently so awesome that people wanted to see the actual movie and were rewarded with Machete in 2010. Reaction was mixed. The action was over-the-top; there were digital buckets of digital blood; the stunt casting was fun. But somehow it felt flat like Rodriguez had killed a good thing.

Well Machete’s back. The latest entry Machete Kills is like an R-rated Spy Kids a misguided attempt to create a new franchise for Rodriguez’s Austin Texas-based Troublemaker Studios. The CGI trickery looks cheaper than ever and no matter how many gonzo details are piled on — Aztec temples doubling as secret villain hideouts exploding helicopters chopped-up bodies — it all feels underwhelming more fan-made online video than the real thing. Kids with a decent computer can make this shit at home. At least the T&A is real. (Though more PG than you’d expect.)

The plot. Oh my where to start. The last film ended with the promise of a Latino-led insurrection that would open the border between Mexico and the United States. (I think.) Machete Kills kinda sorta forgets all of that except for Machete’s romance between himself and federal agent Sartana (Jessica Alba). The two are attempting to stop an illegal arms deal between rogue U.S. military officers and a Mexican drug cartel. Things go badly Sartana is shot dead and Machete ends up in the clutches of an evil Texas Ranger played with mealy-mouthed Southern glee by William Sadler.

In the first of many stunt-casting cameos he’s rescued by a half-awake Charlie Sheen sleazing it up as the President of the United States. He needs Machete to go to Mexico and assassinate Mendez (Demian Bichir) a super-crazy revolutionary upstart who plans to launch a nuclear missile aimed at Washington D.C. He’s aided in his quest by a beauty pageant queen Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard) and revolutionary hero She (Michelle Rodriguez). Cuba Gooding Jr. Lady Gaga Antonio Banderas and Mel Gibson all show up as various heroes and villains.

Things get predictably outrageous and Rodriguez throws in everything from Star Wars references to light political commentary on U.S.-Mexico relations. But whatever anarchic (or more accurately nostalgic) spirit Grindhouse was created in is totally absent here. Rodriguez has found a winning formula for creating in-house but Machete Kills just feels like product — rote and mercenary. Sadly it seems with each passing film that the story of how Robert Rodriguez became a filmmaker is more interesting than the movies themselves.

Machete Kills ends with a tease of course. Next time watch for Machete in outer space. Let’s hope he stays there.

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