Describing Machete Kills, the newest entry in Robert Rodriguez’s over-the-top action series, as “critic-proof” seems kind of unnecessary—except that critics who do have unkind things to say about the movie come off as more ridiculous than the sequences in which countless bullets somehow manage to never hit Danny Trejo’s titular hero. When your movie is so absurdly designed that it falls somewhere between Austin Powers-style parody and completely-dedicated-to-its-premise sincerity, a 33-percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.
Since we’re not concerned with the question of whether or not Machete Kills is good (if you have to ask, you’ll never know), we can instead ask ourselves a much more fun question: Aren’t we glad that we don’t live in the version of Texas that exists in the twisted adolescent fantasy that Robert Rodriguez depicts on the screen?
The answer to that question, of course, is yes, absolutely. And for good reason—that Texas exists on the opposite side of a border marked with extreme violence as drug cartels, increasingly empowered by corruption in Mexico, grow increasingly menacing. Which, yes, sounds a bit like reality, except that in Machete‘s Texas, the cartels threaten to strike in the U.S. by wiring a bomb to their leader’s heart.
It’d be far too depressing for a Friday morning to spend too much time talking about why pretty much the only Hollywood films to even attempt to address the existence of the the Mexican Drug War are movies like Machete Kills. Instead, let’s look at some of the reasons why the real Texas, flawed though it may be, is still a much better place than the Texas of Machete. (There are some light spoilers below, but Machete Kills is as spoiler-proof as it is critic-proof.)
Beauty pageants are even more important
Native Texan Amber Heard—born and raised in Austin—is among the stars of Machete Kills. She plays a beauty queen/secret agent code-named “Miss San Antonio” who uses the access that pageant life apparently offers in order to infiltrate enemy operations. While we’re not entirely certain what precise benefit her position as a beauty queen might offer her, in terms of being an asset in the face of national security issues, the fact is that the duplicitous Miss San Antonio takes her quest for the crown to levels that endanger not just Machete, but the entire world.
Heard’s character suggests a vision of pageant life that is, er, a bit dramatized for effect. (Any former pageant contestants who want to compare their experience with the one depicted in the film, feel free to do so in the comments below.) In any case, the real Miss San Antonio—eighteen-year-old Brooklyn Deppo—now lives in California, where she attends college. She did run on a platform of ending distracted driving, though, which is a less dramatic, but no less important, way to save lives.
Mel Gibson would be our richest citizen
Disgraced former box office hero Mel Gibson doesn’t get offered a lot of opportunities to play the hero these days. Generally, it’s just less fun to watch a star who’s torpedoed his career after he’s uttered racist, homophobic, sexist, and anti-semitic statements start enacting on-screen mayhem as a hero. (It makes audiences wonder if he’s shooting at his opponents because they’re villains, or because he thinks they might be gay/Jewish/women/African-American.)
In Machete Kills, Rodriguez dodges the Gibson problem by casting him as a dire villain—in fact, one whose master plan is pretty racist itself. When I asked Rodriguez about choosing to cast Gibson as a racist villain at the film’s world premiere at Austin’s Fantastic Fest in September, he denied that he was looking to draw on the star’s off-screen exploits for the role. “I remember looking at a list of people to play the villain, and I just wasn’t interested in anybody but Mel Gibson. I thought he would be so good,” Rodriguez told me. “I had just never seen him do a role like that. I’ve seen him play some roles that were dark, but not one that was fun. He was always such a fun guy. He’s like the best James Bond villain. I thought, ‘What if Mel Gibson was a James Bond villain? That’d be awesome.'”
As Gibson’s part was written for him to be a Bond-style villain, he, of course, has a Bond villain’s limitless resources. That means that, if Machete were real, he’d probably have topped the list of the richest people in Texas in our October issue.
Charlie Sheen would be the President of the United States
Hey, speaking of disgraced stars, Charlie Sheen—who Rodriguez says shot his entire part for the movie in a single day, despite multiple scenes—plays a prominent role in Machete Kills. It’s as the president, which is ridiculous because, um, porn family, #winning, tiger’s blood, etc, but also not ridiculous, because we saw his father play President Jed Bartlett on seven seasons of The West Wing, so he actually does look kind of presidential.
Still, despite the fact that there’s a reference to “winning!” in Machete Kills, Rodriguez nonetheless managed to explain with a straight face that he had no interest in Sheen’s off-camera exploits when choosing to cast him (or to bill him as “Carlos Estevez,” which is his birth name, but also a name he has never previously claimed as an actor). “Whatever people’s public persona is—I mean, they’re artists,” Rodriguez said. “They’re going to be favorable, they’re going to be unfavorable, but that doesn’t change who they are as an artist. That’s what I really went to him for. Charlie came in and you could tell he was so surprised. I’ve known him for a number of years, but I hadn’t gotten to see him work professionally. It was like you were watching a classical actor working. It was exciting, man. He just brought his A-game and kicked ass, and shot all that in one day.”
We wouldn’t dare cast aspersions on Sheen’s professionalism behind the camera (frankly, even his Days Of #Winning seemed like a pretty well-delivered performance by the end), but nonetheless, we’re happy to be in a Texas that is part of a country run by someone who is not Charlie Sheen.
Everybody’s better off in a world that does not need a Machete
As ridiculous and over-the-top as Machete Kills is, Rodriguez is a filmmaker with a social conscience, and that makes it into his film, as well. In fact, the challenge of incorporating cartel violence, the exploitation of Mexican labor, and the pushes from within immigrant communities to organize in his absurd action movie is something that Rodriguez seems to relish.
Rodriguez cites seventies exploitation movies as the inspiration for Machete Kills. And while the film probably also has a little more Austin Powers to it than Rodriguez would like to admit, one of the aspects of those seventies pictures that he chases here is the need to balance a filmmaker’s passion for social commentary with the mandate that the movie be big and thrilling and full of explosions. “I wanted that to be imposed on myself in this,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to deliver [thrills], and if you want to tell your story, you can tell it somewhere. You want to talk about cartels, but you’ve got to disguise it in a fun movie.”
Machete Kills is a fun movie, even if some of the elements of its world are worth talking about in a less-ridiculous context. But mercifully, things aren’t so bad that we need a one-man-killing-machine standing up for us against the darkness.