When Robert Rodriguez and Danny Trejo made their joke “Machete” trailer for the ill-fated Grindhouse double feature, the dozen people who saw it in theaters absolutely loved it. There was talk about extending the trailer to a full-length feature, and in retrospect, I wonder how many people actually thought that the project would ever come to pass. But somehow, Machete did find its way to theaters in 2010 and the result was every bit as awesome as promised. Then came news of a sequel, with an delightfully eclectic cast (including Mel Gibson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, et al.) to rival that of the first film.

In retrospect, we all should have known that this was too good to be true. Frankly, it’s a miracle the first film worked as well as it did, with such flimsy source material to pull from. And so we come to Machete Kills, in which this attempt at a franchise flies off the rails in spectacular fashion.

To be clear, it’s not like the movie is completely void of enjoyment. The kills are still gruesome, the weapons are still outlandish, and the fight scenes are still wickedly clever. It also bears mentioning that through the first act, Machete is tasked with keeping someone alive. That was a very clever predicament, given Machete’s specialty of killing people en masse.

Still, I was most impressed by the cast. Danny Trejo is still an unbelievable badass, and Demian Bichir gives a delightfully unhinged performance. I have no idea who Marko Zaror is, but he’s a scary motherfucker in this picture. Charlie Sheen and Sofia Vergara both look like they’re having a fantastic time chewing scenery. Mel Gibson proves that he still has plenty of star power left, gleefully playing a sick amoral bastard. Amber Heard was so sultry and confident that she reminded me with every line why she’s my biggest celebrity crush. Even Vanessa Hudgens plays her minor role so well that I could scarcely believe it was her.

Special mention must be given to Lady Gaga, who inexplicably waited this long to make her feature debut. She plays The Chameleon, an assassin known for shifting from one disguise to another, though I’m sorry to say that Gaga does not play the character through the entire movie. Quite a missed opportunity, in my opinion. Instead, Chameleon’s different characters are all played with aplomb by various actors, and I don’t dare spoil which ones.

Alexa Vega is sadly the weak link, though that’s likely because she was given so little to do. She made for some nice eye candy though, I’ll grant her that.

No, the problem with this movie isn’t the cast. It isn’t even the characters that the actors are playing. No, the problems with this movie stem from Robert Rodriguez, both as the director and as the writer. Then again, Rodriguez was only given a story credit as writer. The actual screenplay credit was given to newcomer Kyle Ward, who had absolutely nothing to do with the previous film or the Grindhouse trailer (so far as I can tell, anyway). So I’m sure Ward deserves a lot of the blame as well.

To start with, the visuals all look crystal clear. That may not sound like much of a complaint, except that it means a total absence of the grain and grit seen earlier in the franchise. The film and the trailer both had an “old damaged film” look to them, providing a retro feel that paid tribute to the grindhouse exploitation films of yesteryear. That was the whole point of Machete. Without that gritty presentation, a central pillar of the franchise’s foundation has been knocked out, and that’s a huge problem.

The film’s exploitation angle also suffers for how scaled-back it is. The first film had a beautiful naked woman double-crossing Machete, just before she slides out a cell phone concealed in her vagina, and that was in the first ten minutes. Nothing in this film is remotely so crass or outrageous. In point of fact, the sequel contains absolutely no nudity. Sure, the film teases us with an Amber Heard sex scene, only to blur out the scene when it actually happens. The film even includes a gang of violent hookers, for God’s sake, and none of them get naked.

I don’t mean to sound like a pervert here, but gratuitous nudity comes part and parcel with the exploitation genre. It’s something that the previous movie and the trailer both embraced to humorous effect. As such, the movie once again takes away a vital part of the grindhouse homages that this whole franchise was built on.

Last but not least, it bears remembering that the previous film was a very funny satire of American/Hispanic relations. The film used stereotypes on both sides of the border to make fun of both ethnicities and make some surprisingly sharp satire on immigration policy. Though that isn’t completely gone here, it’s significantly downplayed. The last film had two or three racist white scumbags for Machete to kill horribly. This film only offers one (an Arizona sheriff played by William Sadler), and he could have been cut from the film entirely with no ill consequences. For comparison’s sake, the last film had an army of Mexicans riding into battle in tricked-out cars bouncing on hydraulics. This film has a United States president whose office is in “The South West Wing.” Amusing, but not nearly as funny or awesome.

Of all the things that made the previous film and the Grindhouse trailer so great (aside from the cast), that just leaves the excessive violence and the campy dialogue. Alas, the film has a much lower ratio of action sequences to screen time, and most of the film’s campier dialogue consists of reheated catchphrases from earlier in the franchise. To wit: Remember that “Machete don’t text” line from the first movie? That gets considerably less funny after the 12th time you hear about something Machete don’t do.

Actually, now that I think about it, there’s something else that Machete had going for it: The plot that ranged from bugfuck to nonexistent. This franchise was never afraid to reach new heights of insanity, and neither does the sequel. Unfortunately, that’s ultimately what ruins this film.

I mean, the sequel had promise. Through the first half or so, the film seemed like it was going to be more of what we liked from the first movie. But then Mel Gibson’s character shows up, and we’re going into ridiculous sci-fi territory that heads absolutely nowhere. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t interesting, it made no kind of sense, and it didn’t make any retro grindhouse tributes that I could see. Basically, the entire sci-fi aspect was specifically designed to get Machete into space, yet the film cuts out just before Machete actually goes to space.

Because they’re saving that for the third movie. Yes, the film begins and ends with joke trailers for Machete Kills Again… In Space! A film that, so far as I know, is not presently in any phase of development or production.

Put simply, the plotting to this movie reminded me strongly of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Both films started out well enough, with sufficient resemblance to the awesome movies that had came before. Yet slowly but surely, the sequels both started drifting. The plotlines and the unexplained bullshit just kept piling up, going absolutely nowhere and making increasingly little sense. Ultimately, both films ended with confusion and uncertainty, leaving the third movie to clear everything up and resolve all the storylines. Except that Pirates actually beats out Machete Kills in that regard, because the third film in the former franchise had already been shot and was therefore guaranteed to hit theaters. Machete Kills, on the other hand, offers no such guarantee and therefore leaves us with nothing but an incomprehensible mess topped with a middle finger. That, Mr. Rodriguez, is a dick move.

I get that Rodriguez and company wanted to take this franchise into new heights of insanity, but the execution feels like he just threw everything at the screen with the hope that something would stick. It’s all thrown together so haphazardly that it feels like the screenplay was written as they went, and the fake trailers were only shot after the fact in a flimsy attempt at tying everything together.

Compare this film to Detention, for example. There was another random dogpile of crazy assorted bullshit thrown together. Yet that film works because of how intricately plotted it was. The film used setups and payoffs in diabolically clever ways, such that the film actually got funnier upon repeat viewings. There was a clear logic to how that movie was constructed. I can’t see any in Machete Kills. Additionally, Detention is ultimately a parody of teen movies and coming-of-age tales. Compare that to the Machete franchise, which seems to have given up on racial satire and grindhouse parody altogether.

It bears repeating that Machete Kills still has a fantastic cast of scenery-chewing actors, some outrageously funny weapons, and wickedly awesome action scenes. The movie is still funny, but the joke is wearing out fast. Without the grindhouse tributes and the racial commentary that served as the franchise’s raison d’etre, all the whacked-out bullshit is merely an end in itself, serving neither the plot nor the comedy.

The plot goes absolutely nowhere because the whole movie was made in the service of a third movie that may never come. And honestly, I’m not sure I want the third movie to get made. At this point, the franchise is like a party taking place in a burning building; if Rodriguez can’t put out the fires before the house collapses on everyone, he’d best call the party off and cut his losses while he still can.

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