Some movies make references to other films and some movies are nothing but references to other films. “Machete Kills” is one of the latter. Robert Rodriguez‘s endlessly winking sequel to his 2010 action epic “Machete” (itself an elongated version of a fake trailer he made for his collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, “Grindhouse“), “Machete Kills” piles on the references, allusions, and shout-outs until you can’t hardly untangle what is a somewhat original Rodriguez contribution and what is from something the director caught one night on pay cable while trying to get to his recorded episode of “Duck Dynasty.” Not that it matters much. “Machete Kills” works best when it becomes a kind of kicky blur.
There are, of course, a handful of movies that act as essential touchstones for “Machete Kills,” films that directly inform some aspect of the movie (usually with accompanying fountains of blood, coarse language, and sporadic nudity). These are the movies that make “Machete Kills,” which once again stars Danny Trejo as a knife-wielding freedom fighter (joined by everyone from Mel Gibson to Charlie Sheen to Lady Gaga), such a blast to watch. Everything from science fiction space operas to deeply Catholic Mexplotation films about nuns to ’70s thrillers about rogue nuclear weapons are referenced in “Machete Kills.” And with good reason too for, as you’ll see, if the whole is nothing but the sum of its parts, the parts that make “Machete Kills” are pretty dynamic indeed.
“The Big Doll House” (1971)
One of the larger, meatier subplots in “Machete Kills” involves Sofia Vergara as Madame Desdemona, a local madam with a taste for blood. Madame Desdemona likes domination, whipping a client until she kills him, and wearing a bra that shoots bullets out of gun turrets that resemble nipples. (She also has a strap on that’s a reference to the crotch gun worn by Tom Savini in Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn.”) This entire section of the movie is an elongated reference to the “women in prison” subgenre best exemplified by the one that started it all—1971’s classic “The Big Doll House.” The movie, directed by Jack Hill, stars Pam Grier and Judy Brown as female prisoners who rise up against their oppressors, which include brutal female guards. Like “Machete Kills,” “The Big Doll House” isn’t interested in depicting real life as much as it’s interested in depicting how other movies depict real life (it’s this twice-removed quality that gives both films some of their perverse kick). Both films also show a complete disregard for the actual tenants of feminism or feminist theory but seem to embody them anyway, as if through osmosis (or some kind of tribal incantation). Grier, in her wonderful autobiography, “Foxy,” said of the film, “I had no concept of categories like A, B, or C movies. A movie was a movie, and I intended to deliver an A performance, no matter what anybody else did.” And, shockingly, she did. As a lesbian inmate who aids in the escape plan, she positively crackles. She was a superstar, even then, whether anybody knew it or not. And Vergara, for all of her bodacious lustiness, can’t really hold a candle to the original queen.
“Battle Beyond the Stars” (1980)
In the opening moments of “Machete Kills,” a trailer is played for “Machete Kills Again… In Space,” a supposed sequel that would continue the events of “Machete Kills” but, you know, in outer space. One of the more jaw-dropping elements of “Machete Kills” is that it actually maneuvers itself to the point that, by the end of the movie, Machete is actually going to outer space. The trailer wasn’t a bluff; it was a promise. And it looked a whole lot like “Battle Beyond the Stars,” a 1980 Roger Corman production that was written by a then-unknown John Sayles as a riff on both “Star Wars” and his love for Akira Kurosawa movies (which also partially inspired George Lucas‘ original film). The film is full of questionable special effects (put together by some kid named James Cameron) and moments that veer from playful pastiche to outright theft. But like the space stuff in “Machete Kills,” it’s got a palpable exuberance and sense of fun that overrides the sometimes painfully obvious make-up effects and bargain basement “futuristic” technology (it’s also great that Corman somehow managed to convince Robert Vaughn to reprise his role from “The Magnificent Seven” but, you know, in space). “Battle Beyond the Stars” also contains a cheeky sexuality, like “Machete Kills” and features a bad guy who populates his personal army with jack-booted clones. Quite frankly, more than thirty years later, “Battle Beyond the Stars” has aged better than Lucas’ newer “Star Wars” prequels, although “Machete Kills” already looks out-of-date.
“Satánico Pandemonium” (1975)
Rodriguez has gone on and on about how he wanted to create a “mex-ploitation” sub-genre with the “Machete” movies but actually there always was one, and “Satánico Pandemonium” is that genre’s crown jewel. The movie concerns a young nun with an adorable bob haircut named Maria (Cecilia Pezet) who, little by little, loses her grip on sanity as she repeatedly encounters an apple-eating apparition who identifies himself as Lucifer (Enrique Rocha). This is a movie where Maria ties a ties a torn-covered rope around her torso (which is some kind of whacked-out crucifixion reference) and erotically self flagellates herself with a cat o’ nine tails and later makes out with a fellow nun, an act of carnality so powerful that it sends her into what can only be described as another dimension, where Lucifer is waiting for her. Her hallucinations become stronger and her mortal urges more corrupt (including seducing, for no apparent reason, a young village boy). It should also be noted that all of this happens in the movie’s first half hour. The greatest moment, however, is when Maria returns to the young boy’s home, where he lives with his elderly grandmother. Maria disrobes (for a nun she’s got a sinfully great body) and climbs into bed with the boy, first jerking him off and then slitting his throat. Yes, you read that right. “Machete Kills” seems to have borrowed the movie’s throw-everyone-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, although it failed to appropriate its unique tone and pacing. Rodriguez likes to talk about how “hardcore” “Machete Kills” is. But it’s tame compared to this stuff. (Bonus trivia: Rodriguez named Salma Hayek‘s character in “From Dusk Till Dawn” after the movie.)
“Death Wish 3” (1985)
In the third “Death Wish” movie, the last to be directed by WTF auteur Michael Winner, Charles Bronson‘s violent vigilante Kersey returns to Brooklyn and gets tasked by a corrupt cop to kill a bunch of gang members who are menacing a local neighborhood. Like “Machete Kills,” “Death Wish 3” is centered around an unlikely alliance between the powers that be and a man who operates just outside the law. And like Danny Trejo, Bronson is a bad-ass well past his sell-by date, his midsection accentuated by a noticeable paunch and his run slightly stiffer and slower than in the previous installments. Still, there’s a lot to love about the unapologetically sleazy “Death Wish 3,” including the agreeably artificial jazz-prog score by Led Zeppelin member Jimmy Page (yes, seriously) and how obvious it is that the movie was filmed in England and not New York (the set looks under-populated and post-apocalyptic). Like “Machete Kills,” “Death Wish 3” is populated by anonymous, clumsily photographed shoot-outs, and steered by an iffy moral compass. One of the best moments in the movie is when Kersey, invited over to dinner by a nice old Jewish couple who live in the war-torn neighborhood, leaves the table briefly to encounter two thugs trying to jack a car. Kersey shoots the men dead (it’s pretty shocking, even for a movie called “Death Wish 3”) and then comes back to finish his dinner. Placing his napkin back in his lap, he says, “I sent a message.” Message received.
“Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (1977)
This might be the least exploitation-y movie on our list but it’s still been marginalized over the year and is something of a genre oddity (it miraculously had a deluxe Blu-ray release not too long ago, thanks to Olive Films). In “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” an Air Force general (played, wonderfully, by Burt Lancaster) and his merry band (including Burt Young and Paul Winfield) infiltrate a silo and take control of some nuclear missiles. They hold the United States ransom (for $10 million and the release of some secret military documents), while the president quietly sends in an elite team (led by Richard Widmark) to take Lancaster and his goons out. Sure, at 146 minutes, it’s unnecessarily long, but it moves at a swifter place than the noticeably shorter “Machete Kills,” which borrows the whole nuclear missile plot for its third act. Mel Gibson doesn’t create as much furious menace as Burt Lancaster, however, and while “Machete Kills” desperately tries to look and feel like some woe begotten movie from the ’70s, you can’t beat the genuine article, especially given the excessive use of split screens, to delightful effect, in “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” Robert Aldrich, a kind of journeyman filmmaker who Rodriguez clearly idolizes, directed the film with an assured sense of style. For anyone who wants a fun, if slightly dated, ’70s thriller (one where Burt Lancaster says, “Try one more stunt and I’ll light up the fucking sky”), “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” is highly recommended. Not only did it partially inspire “Machete Kills,” but “The Simpsons” borrowed its title for the episode where Sideshow Bob takes over the Air Show.
Of course this is just the start of a long list of influences on “Machete Kills,” one that probably includes everything from the grindhouse revenge movie “Rolling Thunder” (a favorite of Quentin Tarantino‘s) to James Bond movies and the work of John Carpenter (the character of The Chameleon feels very much like it’s popped out of “The Thing“). Quite frankly, thinking too hard about what movies inspired “Machete Kills” (and, in turn, what movies “Machete Kills” will inspire) might turn into something maddening, a snake-that-eats-its-own-tail of exploitation excessiveness. But then again, Rodriguez probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Machete Kills” opens on October 11th.