“Machete Kills? More Like Machete Sucks!”: A Critical Analysis

The disappointing film starring Danny Trejo, Lady Gaga and Charlie Sheen highlights the trouble with sequels and the limits of irony.

“Machete will return in: Machete Kills!” boomed the gritty voiceover dude at the end of Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 Mexploitation parody. Three years later, we’re reminded that it was a threat, not a promise.

I’m a massive fan of following through on throwaway ideas, so I found much to admire about Machete, which expanded Rodriguez’s spoof trailer from Grindhouse: Planet Terror. Danny Trejo is the titular vigilante, a former Federale hired to kill a US senator. Double-crossed by his shady employer, Machete then seeks gory revenge with the help of a gun-toting priest and an overcoat full of blades.

As cheesy as a quesadilla, Machete executed its simple premise with downmarket gusto, luxuriating in the tropes and textures of ’70s exploitation cinema. And while its political satire was blunter than any of Machete’s weapons, its release coincided with the heightened racial anxieties surrounding Arizona’s controversial, wide-ranging anti-illegal immigration law.

It was silly but coherent. Machete Kills, however, is both incoherent and joyless. Its stunt casting and bewilderingly dated pop culture references can’t quite disguise Rodriguez’s uncertainty about what to do with his protagonist. I am so, so disappointed and angry that I can’t get back the time I spent watching it.

The trouble with sequels

In August, Joss Whedon told Entertainment Weekly that movies become moribund when they become self-referential. Whedon compares the spontaneous moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones shoots the swordsman to the deliberate reiteration of that moment in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Indy’s wry grin makes no diegetic sense, since Temple of Doom takes place before the events of Raiders. But the grin rewards the audience for recognising the reference.

Machete Kills consists almost solely of such moments. It’s like a cup of tea made with a used teabag: a watered-down, unsatisfying reminder of something that should have been enjoyed once and thrown away. Almost every scene recalls a better scene from the previous movie — or from other movies.

As before, Machete is bribed to assassinate someone. This time, President Rathcock (Charlie Sheen, credited as Carlos Estevez) offers him US citizenship in exchange for taking out Marcos Mendez (Demian Bichir), a Mexican cartel member-turned-freedom fighter who plans to launch a missile at Washington. To find Mendez and stop the missile, Machete embarks on a chain of short, violent setpieces, aided by a local fixer (Amber Heard) who’s undercover as Miss San Antonio.

Along the way, Machete encounters a young prostitute (Vanessa Hudgens), her dominatrix madam (Sofia Vergara), a redneck sheriff (William Sadler) and his gormless deputy (Samuel Davis), a mysterious businessman (Mel Gibson) and a shape-shifting contract killer called El Camaleon (various actors). Michelle Rodriguez returns as Luz the activist taco-stand owner, as does Jessica Alba as immigration and customs agent Sartana Rivera.

It reminded me of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Both sequels seem to grasp the aspects of the precursor films that audiences liked, so they’ve packed in lots more of those. But, like A Game of Shadows, Machete Kills picks the wrong qualities to amplify and amplifies them in the wrong ways.

Ritchie made two key mistakes. First, the slow-motion sequences that in Sherlock Holmes evoked the preternatural speed of Holmes’s remarkable deductive brain are over-used in A Game of Shadows as thoughtless bullet-time bombast. And the second film degrades the first film’s sparky screwball relationship between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Watson (Jude Law) into slapstick gay jokes. (“Lie down with me, Watson!”)

Similarly, Rodriguez has noticed that Machete fans really liked Trejo’s gruff one-liner, “Machete don’t text.” But this time, Machete informs us that he don’t tweet, smoke, fail or joke.

In the first film, Machete was a stoic sex symbol, amiably bedding both Luz and Sartana, and toying with white racist fears and fetishes in a threesome with his employer’s wife (Alicia Rachel Marek) and daughter (Lindsay Lohan) in which they think he’s a ‘gardener’. But Machete Kills’ treatment of sex is both sophomoric and transactional. Miss San Antonio grimly fucks Machete as part of his briefing; meanwhile, the vengeful prostitutes don machine-gun bras and strap-ons with their hotpants and cowboy boots, like extras from Sin City or Sucker Punch.

The limits of irony

Grindhouse pastiche is now a stable genre. Along with cartoonish ultraviolence, badass dialogue and shocking reveals, audiences expect lurid cinematography, a saturated colour palette, and simulated analogue textures such as scratches, grain, cue dots and mismatched colour grading.

B-movie directors were journeymen churning out low-budget flicks for cash. But the directors pastiching them now are auteurs, connoisseurs and manipulators of genre. Audiences’ viewing pleasure lies in recognising and appreciating the director’s intertextual homages. We could call this mode of spectatorship ‘analogue irony’.

Machete Kills strikes me as the work of a journeyman rather than an auteur. It’s carelessly shot, its digital effects look cheap and unconvincing, and it gives the dismaying impression that Rodriguez will keep making Machete films forever unless someone stops him.

These are the aesthetic tropes of a new kind of B-movie: the ‘mockbusters’ churned out by low-budget studio The Asylum. Films such as Sharknado seem to cynically feed off, yet not quite satisfy, our desire for ironic spectatorship. Asylum films are calculatedly terrible, so they fail the key cult movie eligibility test of being artlessly bad in the way of The Room or Troll 2.

Rodriguez may well have noticed the popularity of The Asylum’s ‘digital irony’ and decided to claim it for himself. But I still find something inadvertent and undisciplined in the badness of Machete Kills. I think Rodriguez has lost control over the analogue irony that made Machete such an enjoyable romp.

Machete was preposterous and larger-than-life, but still had an internal logic as a revenge western. By contrast, Machete Kills can’t pick a premise, roaming incoherently into fantasy, science fiction and Austin Powers-style retro spy pastiche. It’s so chockers with cyborgs, spaceships, clones, face-ripping shape-shifters and precognitive powers that it struggles to be about anything much at all.

At one point, a character shows Machete a vehicle resembling Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder and tells Machete, redundantly, “I love Star Wars.” As if we haven’t already seen lightsaber machetes, nebbishy androids and someone getting frozen in carbonite! As the end credits roll, we’re told, “Machete will return in: Machete Kills Again… In Space!” I, however, hope Rodriguez’s empire never strikes back.

Machete Kills is now showing in cinemas nationally.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast. Her debut book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, is out now.