Robert Rodriguez is well on his way to becoming the next Roger Corman, but his mondo-exploitation filmmaking — hip titillations, homemade on the cheap — has become weirdly diluted with stars of late. Admittedly, these stars are often from the fringes of respectable Hollywood and no doubt aren’t pulling down their usual giant salaries to appear in Rodriguez’s personal blend of grind house and parody, but nonetheless, their presence feels a little enervating. They’re sucking the blood from all the fun-house gore and sex. Eye-popping thrift-store icons like Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, and Cuba Gooding Jr. appearing alongside Rodriguez’s formidable cult-film stable of Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, and Amber Heard have become most of what the famed low-budget creative improviser has to offer. Sadly, these posh cameos seem to take the place of the gross-out wonders that made people love El Mariachi — not to mention all those crazy Tarantino team-ups. Instead, we get celebrity slumming on parade.
Still, you can tell the old Rodriguez is somewhere nearby; he’s got a big thing about unspooling viscera in this film, which follows super-cholo spy Machete on an adventure involving the Mexican cartel and super-villain La Camaleón, whose multiple identities derive from the old Scooby Doo rubber-mask school. But Rodriguez’s real punk moves are again casting shocks, like Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen, credited under his real name, Carlos Estévez. The offense to the bourgeoisie is Gibson, who plays an evil CEO. Maybe we thought the real man’s crazy, unforgivable racism made him unfit for cinematic consumption. Not so to Rodriguez, who featured Steven Seagal and Lindsay Lohan in the first Machete film.
Gimmick stars aren’t enough, though. At 107 minutes, Machete Kills is 20 minutes too long, even with the clever post-credits scratchy-stocked preview of a projected sequel (Machete Kills Again … In Space). Rodriguez needs no new muses; he just has to start thinking, again. Danny Trejo is always cool, but this is the bad kind of hack filmmaking.