Robert Rodriguez used to be an exciting director. His best films - "Desperado," "From Dusk Till Dawn," "El Mariachi" - were no masterpieces, but they bustled with ingenuity, with the vigor of a child who had just earned himself the biggest train set available. Rodriguez was making unrepentant genre pictures, full of kinetic energy and inventive craftsmanship, in a time where irony was all the rage. He established himself as the heir apparent to straight-faced '70s purveyors of sleaze like Jack Hill or Jack Starrett. But then "Grindhouse" happened, and suddenly Rodriguez decided that he needed to embrace the kitschy side of his work. The straight face disappeared, and was replaced with wink, a nod and an elbow to the gut.
The non-family films Rodriguez has made since 2005's "Sin City" have all been done in a self-consciously campy vein, and his latest, "Machete Kills," is no exception. Danny Trejo returns as the titular vigilante, a folk-hero-slash-killing-machine who's seemingly impervious to death. Machete provides Rodriguez an outlet for his id, and all that's here are his trademarks: The bloodshed, the rampant depictions of crass sexuality, and guns big enough to fulfill the fantasies of any adolescent boy. The problem is that there's nothing else to hang our hats on. Look at "From Dusk Till Dawn:" It had characters, a story, a balanced pace and structure, it had George Clooney giving a career-best performance, it was a real movie. The zaniness and crassness was just part of the texture. Now, it's all we get.
I don't even know how to describe the plot of "Machete Kills," because there's not really a plot at all, there's just a set of increasingly insane set pieces strung together by an impenetrably convoluted plot. The denizens of the universe include Demian Bichir as a schizophrenic mass murderer, Amber Heard as a government agent/beauty queen, Sofia Vergara as a brothel madam with guns attached to her tits, Charlie Sheen as the president of the United States, and Mel Gibson, liberally and laughably chewing scenery, as a psychic arms dealer who's obsessed with "Star Wars" and plans to send himself into space. Yes, it's that type of movie - an absurdist walk-on cameo fest, and one that's too busy introducing famous faces to ever give them anything interesting to do.
Their appearances are the only joke, in one case, literally: Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding, Antonio Banderas and Lady Gaga all play the same character, a shape-shifting "Chameleon" that never even manages to affect the plot. Rodriguez's use of the character is proof that he's just filling time, just trying to entertain himself. He doesn't make movies for the sake of making movies anymore, he doesn't tell stories. All he's doing is creating characters that would look good on posters, and then writing sub-video-game worth action scenes to display them.
So the picture is repetitive to an almost Bunuellian extent. Machete constantly gets caught by groups of bad guys, is strung up to die, and then shoots his way out. There are more gunfights and gore in this picture than in ten John Woo movies put together, but never once are they exciting, much less lyrical or balletic. Instead, they just feel sad: There's nothing to build to, just bullets followed by boobs followed by more bullets. There's never any progression, even - we open with a teaser for "Machete In Space," and close out on a cliffhanger that'll lead us there. The film literally ends in the same place where it begins.
Rodriguez's latest can't decide if it's a serial, a satire, or a straight-faced exploitation flick, so it aims to split the difference. Unfortunately, it fails to achieve any of those three tones. What attracted Rodriguez and the filmmakers of his ilk to exploitation movies in the first place was their total lack of pretensions, but "Machete Kills" is as pretentious as they come. The film only works when viewed under the lens of other exploitation films: Its transgressions are too basic to be shocking, and too uninspired to be funny. It's just a cinematic regurgitation, "Grindhouse" being barfed back up in another form for the umpteenth time.
In emphasizing the camp and artifice of the pictures, Rodriguez and his cohorts have eliminated everything that was enjoyable about low-budget exploitation movies in the first place. He's made a movie of nothing but moments, and none of the moments are any good.