In the new movie Machete Kills, nothing is really new. But that's the point.
The sequel to 2010's retro-action flick Machete was inspired by a fake trailer for a retro-action movie that appeared in 2007's retro-action/horror double feature Grindhouse, which was itself a self-consciously tawdry paean to 1970s exploitation flicks. In none of these incarnations were we expected to take Machete – a former Mexican federal agent (Danny Trejo) who kills bad guys by the jeep-load – seriously.
This is genre parody of the most obvious and indelicate kind, and in this it is not alone. We live in a cinematic age of foraging for inspiration in the pop-culture dumpsters of the past. These days, most popular movies are sequels of some sort: to comic books, to films that were once comic books, to plain old previous movies, to TV series or to Saturday-morning cartoons. It's part echo chamber and part hall of mirrors. Nothing old really dies, it just gets repurposed, rebooted, recycled and regurgitated. The whole point behind a movie like Machete Kills is that it's the same old, but with added CGI gore effects and wise-ass attitude.
Machete Kills – already slated for a third regurgitation, Machete Kills Again ... In Space! – exists in a kind of cultural-yard-sale netherworld. Everything old is up for grabs, and played strictly for giggles. It flaunts its badness as a badge of purpose. Like the proud child who falls off a bicycle while showing off, it howls, "I meant to do that."
Who's to blame here? Is it Mel Brooks? John Waters? Andy Warhol? Carol Burnett? Wayne and Shuster? Each was an instigator of the lowbrow retro-movie parody, a form without which there would be no Machete Kills. And that may not be a bad thing.
Director Robert Rodriguez made his rep more than 20 years ago as the wunderkind who created El Mariachi on a Visa-limit budget of $7,000 (U.S.). Now, he has a career in low-cost self-referentiality. Compared with his contemporary (and Grindhouse co-director) Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez is no meticulous postmodern reanimator of carefully stitched genre parts. He's a tomb raider in a rush, stuffing his bags full of as much pop-cultural booty as he can before galloping off to the next mausoleum.
Machete Kills, like its predecessor, is fun in a wholly insubstantial, determinedly larky kind of way. Unfortunately, the fun it generates for the audience never seems to quite catch up with the fun that people are having onscreen. Just as Grindhouse played party-hearty to empty theatres, Machete Kills feels as though it's having so much fun on its own that it doesn't even need an audience.
Everybody up there seems to be having a hoot: Lady Gaga appears as one of four incarnations of the shape-shifting psycho killer La Camaleón. Charlie Sheen (billed under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) shows up as a fetchingly sleazy U.S. president. Even Mel Gibson seems tickled to be cast as the endlessly speechifying clairvoyant billionaire, Voz. So crammed is Rodriguez's house party for no-frills gore geeks, it almost comes as a surprise every time we're reminded that Trejo's Machete is still around, blade at the ready and looking understandably pissed at all these rowdies letting loose in his movie.
A committed recycler less of the green than of the blood-red variety, Rodriguez seems to have set for his goal in this movie the task of imagining and executing as many ridiculous modes of high-splatter Hasta la vista, baby as he can pack in. And, boy, can he pack: You've got the bit where an intestine is caught in a helicopter's rotor blade; you've got the old slice-the-body-right-down-the-middle routine; and, just to keep things from getting dull, you've got a weapon that turns people inside out before they explode.
But it was inevitable, wasn't it? And I don't simply refer to the fact that, just as Machete was promised by a fake trailer in Grindhouse, so Machete Kills is promised at the end of Machete, and Machete Kills ... In Space! at the beginning of Machete Kills. I'm talking about the gradual trend that has overcome pop culture since the 1970s, when, for the first time as a mainstream phenomenon, movies began being about other movies. Genre deconstruction became a genre in itself. Movie reality has became a sufficient reality to sustain its own artificial biosphere.
Mel Brooks was the reigning box-office master of the form, at least until George Lucas delivered cheap Saturday-morning serials up as Star Wars. The seventies marked the first time an emerging generation of filmmakers had grown up doing nothing but watching movies and going to film school. The plastic past seemed a far more secure place to park our curiosity than did an uncertain future – which is why, with Star Wars, set "a long time ago" anyway, even the future comfortingly resembled the past.
There's a tradition to Machete Kills, you've got to give it that. And it does have one eye on the future – or at least on outer space. But why do I have the feeling even that's going to feel like somewhere we've already been?