Robert Rodriguez is one of the 10 best movie directors working. Period. This is not to say that his films—“El Mariachi,” “From Dawn to Dusk,” the four “Spy Kids” movies, “Sin City,” the successful half of “Grindhouse,” “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” and the two “Machete” movies—are going to please the sort of people who keep score.
He likes to make movies that toy imaginatively with subjects that actually concern us: sex, pop culture, race, social class, violence, and gadgets. He has a sense of humor and some ideas about history. He is not pretentious. Robert Rodriguez is, let’s face it, good company.
His methods, though, will leave some moviegoers struggling to figure out what is “good” about his latest film, “Machete Kills.” It doesn’t seem to be about anything. It doesn’t seem to be trying to convince us of anything. It isn’t apparently “deep.”
Instead, it seems to be a movie intended for showing in a drive-in in about 1968.
If Danny Trejo, who plays the title character, wore a sport coat and a turtle neck, and if the action took place in a Caribbean resort instead of along the Mexican border, we might mistake “Machete Kills” for a new James Coburn movie in the series that included “In Like Flint” and “Our Man Flint.” Like them it is a spy picture spoof that was also a spy picture in its own right.
However, Rodriguez isn’t confined by the kind of studio oversight that limited the Flint movies. In place of Lee J. Cobb, his cast is Mel Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr. (delivering a nifty character treatment), Amber Heard, Charlie Sheen (credited as Carlos Estavez), and TV’s Sofia Vergara.
Films during the late sixties and early seventies did a lot more with sex and a lot less with violence than have movies made since. Rodriguez kids about this, showing the only sex scene in this film as a fake two-color process 3D sequence, the glasses for which the audience is not provided.
“Machete Kills” features lots of violence—probably a dozen beheadings, for example. But the director has gone a fair distance to make the violence seem silly and unreal. In fact, the number of killings (which probably exceeds the number in “In Like Flint”) by itself makes each death seem less likely until we are as unconvinced by the violence as we are by soccer players writhing on the field and holding their shins.
Our hero, the title character, is a secret agent we have seen before in the Spy Kids flics and in the 2010 movie “Machete.” This unstoppable and notably ugly killer always works for Good. In this movie he is asked by the womanizing, pop-culture supporting President of the United States (Sheen) to neutralize a Mexican with split personalities. This man, Mendez, has somehow gotten a missile and has aimed it at D.C.
Machete grabs the guy but discovers the launch system is wired into his heart. A clock is counting down to launch as our hero drags the guy north, via stolen exotic cars, aircraft, and boats, to convince millionaire arms-maker Vos (Gibson) to stop the countdown. As we travel north, the mileage to the border is shown on screen.
A bounty has many people looking to kill Mendez. One of these is a professional murderer called The Chameleon (played by at least four different people, including Banderas, Gooding, and Gaga). Also trailing the north-bound party is a bordello proprietor (Vergara) with gun-turret bra-cups and three assistant hit-hookers.
Machete’s government contact is Miss San Antonio (Heard), but he also has the support group headed by one-eyed, leather bikini-top and eye-patch wearing Luz (Michele Rodriguez). All of them will figure in the series of chats followed by shoot-outs that characterize the movie. So will Voz’s cloned body-guard, a six-foot-six karate expert.
So long as the talking doesn’t go on, “Machete Kills” is amusing and colorful. When it talks it is trying to explain its plot. The movie’s profundity is that it takes subjects we have found complicated—emigration and female sex appeal, for example—as routine practicalities.
Narrative artists like Rodriguez tell amusing stories and lead us by demonstrating what we already agree about but can’t bring ourselves to say. He’s smart and thoughtful, and yet he likes to tell stories. That’s the secret of his success.