14 October 2013

IN THE MOOD FOR SOME MEXICAN

The 2010 film Machete was a tongue-in-cheek grind house throwback like a hundred other tongue-in-cheek grind house throwbacks, although made better than most of them: full of action, full of nudity, generally tasteless but aware of it to just enough a degree that it's fun. Its sequel, Machete Kills, is not any of this - it's a straight-up comedy that happens to involve a superficially action-ish plot, and a lot of violence. Basically, take a Screwy Squirrel cartoon, and replace the titular rodent with a unfailingly snarling Mexican. That is Machete Kills, the best application of anarchic cartoon sensibility to a live-action setting since Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and the longer I've lived with it, the more confident I am that it's the most interesting and entertaining film of director Robert Rodriguez's career. It's not likely that I shall be able to convince anyone of the validity of this opinion.

That things are working in a heightened register is apparent before the film even begins, technically, since the first thing that happens is a trailer for the unmade (and, based on Machete Kills's terrible box office, likely to remain that way) Machete Kills Again ...in Space, which is to begin with, an obvious joke. And not just obvious in the way that Machete itself was a joke when it began life as a trailer in the 2007 exploitation homage Grindhouse. It is, for one thing, weirdly absorbed back into the movie that follows, for as Machete Kills enters its final act, it becomes increasingly clear that the trailer was a piece of foreshadowing meant to be seen in that very specific context, and that it also could not be advertising a film that would exist in the specific form indicated by the trailer. For another while the original Machete trailer was an exaggerated in-joke for people who knew and loved real grindhouse trailers, the Machete Kills Again spot is far closer to self-parody, as Rodriguez and crew press the idea of "let's make fake '70s exploitation movies" to a place so overtly tacky and cheap that it seems to be making fun of itself for thinking that it's at all cool.

Machete Kills itself kicks in with the only scene that feels largely of a piece with Machete, in which the fugitive ex-Federale Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) and his girlfriend, ICE Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) break up an arms deal on the U.S.-Mexico border, in an intensely violent showdown that starts to drift into the mode that the rest of the film will happily inhabit right around the moment that Machete uses his own body as a conduit to electrocute some faceless henchman. This is the first moment of outright absurdity in a film that will quickly decide it wants to include nothing else. Not that the plot itself is terribly outlandish: Machete is contacted by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen) to help stop a Mexican warlord (Demián Bichir) from nuking Washington, and this turns into something infinitely larger, involving American arms dealer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson). It's stock '80s action stuff.

It's the way that plot is carried out that's so special. And so intensely odd. If there was a single word that could be used to describe virtually every beat of the film, it would be "ridiculous", and that holds for plot developments (Machete crosses paths with a psychotic brothel madam played to the hilt by Sofía Vergara), for narrative structure (virtually every single member of the stuffed cast ends up putting in a tiny cameo, many of them ending in abrupt death), and for imagery (the way that some of those violent deaths are performed). The only unifying rule of the film is anarchy: logic and physics are both frequently suspended to permit the creation of some daft physical gag. I compared it to Screwy Squirrel before, and try as I might, I can't come up with a better touchstone than the slapstick-driven cartoons of the '40s and '50s, where the one and only thing that matters is getting to the joke, and filling the frame with amusing randomness. In this case, that includes things like machine gun brassieres, a shape-changing hitman striking a pose after having become a woman in the desert, or a big prop stamp that the President can use to make anyone a legal U.S. citizen that he wants.

All of it is wildly divorced from even the vague stand-in for reality that governed Machete, and I gather that this is not at all to everyone's taste. I can't really even say that this makes me sad; this kind of anything-goes comic madness is already a bit exhausting at eight minutes, and at 107, Machete Kills is a lot of strained nonsense if you're not 100% on its wavelength; and even if you are, there's a lot of dead space, particularly in the middle, where the story seems to have run out of craziness to join together the violent slapstick of the first third and the outright surrealism in the Bondian science fiction of the last third. Random events happening fast enough to create a rushing momentum is absolutely the only thing standing between Machete Kills and the abyss, and when that momentum goes out, the film threatens to collapse altogether; it is through sheer good luck that Mel Gibson, in a wildly game self-parodying performance, manages to hoist the film back on track through sheer weirdness.

None of the words I've used to describe this are necessarily ones that connote an objectively "good" movie, and that's certainly not an accident: Machete Kills really isn't good, but bad in an extremely deliberate, focused way that builds up a very unique kind of comic energy as it goes along. For myself, it's even better than I thought I wanted it to be, and the anything-goes don't-give-a-fuck construction of the film, its embrace of ludicrous violence, even the way that screenwriter Kyle Ward has found a way to make the word "fuck" seem consistently fresh and funny two decades after Tarantino and his acolytes (including Rodriguez) stripped it of any actual meaning, all add up to the legitimately funniest movie of 2013, and certainly the most aggressive and deranged in getting to that funniness. I can't even start to think of what kind of person would be guanteed to enjoy this sort of thing, but I am awfully glad that I'm one of them.

8/10

3 comments:

Will said...

Reading this review makes me extremely happy. I thought I was alone (and more than a little insane) because I enjoyed this movie to an almost embarrassing extent. The middle drags, as you pointed out, but it's more than made up for by such incredible scenes as when Machete yanks a henchman's intestines out of his torso and tosses them into a set of helicopter blades.

TheConciseStatement said...

This makes me a terrible person but I think I want to see this just for Mel Gibson. (He plays a character called Voz for goodness sake - worth three stars alone.)

Kevin J. Olson said...

That is Machete Kills, the best application of anarchic cartoon sensibility to a live-action setting since Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and the longer I've lived with it, the more confident I am that it's the most interesting and entertaining film of director Robert Rodriguez's career.

Likening this to Gremlins 2 has me giddy. I cannot wait to see this now.