Monday, September 8, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

It's often been observed that James Bond's creator Ian Fleming had two creative sides. On one hand, having been a real agent for British Naval Intelligence, Fleming could write credibly about the down-and-dirty nature of spy-work, producing such mundane-focused works as THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and many of the short Bond stories, such as "The Living Daylights." OTOH, Fleming unquestionably enjoyed invoking sensational, often freakish villains like Goldfinger and Doctor No, and although Fleming never saddled his hero with the dozens of gimmicks wielded by the cinematic Bond, Fleming's character does exist at times in a world inclined more toward "fantasy" than "reality."

I don't know anything about Robert Rodriguez's tastes or personal history, but his history as a writer-producer-director suggests that he also finds it easy to switch gears from "reality" to "fantasy." Granted, Rodriguez' version of "reality" is like Fleming's, for it still involves unusual exploits by a ballsy hero, whether one is talking about the "El Mariachi" films or 2010's MACHETE.  These films are very much in the tradition of the hard-boiled protagonists played by celebrated stars like Eastwood and Bronson (the latter sharing something of Danny Trejo's formidable homeliness).  On the other hand, Rodriquez has also produced a large quantity of pure-fantasy films, ranging from the juvenile SPY KIDS franchise to the grittier action-horror flicks FROM DUSK TO DAWN and PLANET TERROR.

In the original MACHETE, heroic ex-federale Machete Cortez can perform stunts that border on the uncanny, like cutting off people's heads with his signature weapon, or descending from a high window by holding on to the unraveling intestines of a man he's just eviscerated. However, I find that the script for MACHETE, as wild as it is, remains on the naturalistic side of the border between the two worlds of "realistic spectacle"-- also represented by THE SPY WHO LOVED ME-- and "fantasy-spectacle," ranging from the uncanny phenomenality of LIVE AND LET DIE to the marvelous nature of DOCTOR NO.  It helps, too, that the script-- co-written by director Rodriguez-- includes some meditations on a real-world sociological concern: the relationship of the citizens of Mexico to their richer neighbors of El Norte.  These meditations aren't meant to be very deep, given that MACHETE is first and foremost about balls-to-the-wall action, indicated by the tag-line:

He gets the women. And he kills the bad guys!

The original MACHETE is aso noteworthy for tossing in a level of perversity reminiscent of the Bad Old Days of 1970's sleaze cinema, including one scene in which a Catholic priest is crucified, and another scene in which one of the villains-- the father of a teenaged girl-- clearly lusts after his own daughter.  Rodriguez, unlike his sometime collaborator Quentin Tarantino, makes no bones about offering up loads of voluptuous femininity-- Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, and Lindsay Lohan, for three. But the big action set-pieces are the main attraction, and Rodriguez delivers on most if not all counts.

2013's MACHETE KILLS isn't just Machete's version of DOCTOR NO, it plunges full-bore into the overt science-fictional content of the Bond-film MOONRAKER.  I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Rodriguez and his collaborators had intentionally "homaged" the 1979 flick, for KILLS' master villain Luther Voz (Mel Gibson) basically follows the same scheme of MOONRAKER's villain: to take a coterie of carefully selected colonists onto a space station while the rest of the world is destroyed.  However, Rodriguez plays up the loony humor of the situation to a much greater degree. Voz is an avowed STAR WARS fan, who tries to win the hero to the Dark Side by offering him various perks, including a charged-up, "lightsabre"-ish version of his normal machete. Indeed, the faux-trailer for the next Machete film-- which may never appear, given that KILLS was not a box-office success-- goes all-out with STAR WARS imagery. Gibson's performance as a space-happy super-villain is a little too in-jokey for my tastes, but his two fights with Machete are enhanced by his claim of precognitive talents, so that he can to some extent read Machete's intentions.

If Rodriguez did model KILLS on MOONRAKER, he inadvertently copied one of the earlier film's worst aspects: a slack script punctuated by the villains' repetitive attempts to kill the hero. The first half of the film poses a threat roughly like that of Jason Statham's CRANK franchise, in that Machete is forced to keep the heart of a crazed terrorist (Demian Bichir) beating. If that heart stops beating, a missile-attack will devastate the United States.  This is a fun plot-device up until Rodriguez throws it away, and after that, the film more or less gets lost in a welter of aimless fight-scenes and sexy scenes. One scene, a catfight between Machete's gal-pal Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and the evil Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), combines aspects of sex and violence, though I for one would much rather have seen Ms. Rodriguez take on the movie's other major Bad Girl, Sofia Vergara.

KILLS' script does toss out a few sociological comments about the demeaning treatment of Mexicans by norteamericanos: William Sadler plays a bad "good ol' boy" lawman with a habit of hanging any Mexican he encounters, and the U.S. President ("Carlos Estevez," a.k.a. Charlie Sheen) more or less forces Machete to take on the mission to find the missile-master.  But these are mere toss-offs in a script that feels more like SPY KIDS than FROM DUSK TO DAWN-- or even MOONRAKER.

One STAR WARS emulation may have hurt KILLS at the box office, for it's possible that some film-goers heard that the conclusion leaves various plot-threads dangling-- and, in contrast to the original STAR WARS, not in a good way, Also, KILLS duplicates some of the 2010 film's signature moments: there's another gut-unraveling, another revelation about an incestuous parent. A film-sequel can only succeed with these sort of  "mirror-scenes" in the same way TERMINATOR 2: by having a script that built upon the ideas of its predecessor did. But although there are some moments in KILLS, the weak script keeps them from being compelling. It's possible that the first Machete film pretty much "shot its wad," so to speak, and that even a less fantastical approach in the sequel may not have done any better.

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