In August, Entertainment Weekly published an interview with Joss Whedon in which he laments how movies today rely too much on already established popular culture. He does so by complaining about one particular scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:
"A movie has to be complete within itself; it can't just build off the first one or play variations. You know that thing in Temple of Doom where they revisit the shooting trick? ... That's what you don't want. And I feel that's what all of culture is becoming -- it's becoming that moment."
Now, this is a very astute observation (and I've written about this quote before), but these words came rushing back to me as I watched a terrible movie called Machete Kills, because that entire movie's existence seems to be built on "that" moment.
It's a shame that this is what's it's come to for Robert Rodriguez, an undoubtedly gifted filmmaker who dazzled audiences with offbeat films like From Dusk Till Dawn. Now, he's settling for shock-value cameos from Charlie Sheen (not-at-all cleverly "introduced" here by his given name of Carlos Estevez) and Mel Gibson (who is still named Mel Gibson).
Machete Kills has a plot, I suppose. Tough guy Machete (Danny Trejo, who deserves better) -- who has a keen ability to stay alive no matter how dead he should be -- is hired by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen; this is supposed to be funny in and of itself) to stop a madman (Demián Bichir, who honestly appears as if he's having a nice time) in Mexico from launching a missile at Washington D.C. -- a missile developed by a prominent arms dealer played by Mel Gibson.
Also, there are a lot of shootouts in this movie. A lot. Actually, almost every scene ends in a large shootout of some kind. Anytime a character starts to say something that is in the least bit interesting, a shootout starts. It may sound exciting to watch so many shootouts, but even in a movie that is essentially a spoof, non-stop shootouts become very, very tiresome.
Machete Kills opens with a fake trailer for Machete in Space, which is done with that fake "film scratch" style. Now, when Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth first started doing that, yes, it was kind of interesting in a nostalgic sort of way. Now, it's just starting to feel lazy -- "Oh, this trick again." It's now nostalgia for nostalgia. Machete Kills opens with that moment and just doesn't stop.
Over the course of the movie, there are lightsaber references, a character gets frozen in carbonite and not only is there a vehicle that resembles Luke Skywalker's landspeeder, it's explained to us by Mel Gibson's Luther Voz that this vehicle exists because he "loves Star Wars." Well, that's great. A lot of us love Star Wars. And it's obvious that Robert Rodriguez loves Star Wars, too. But if I wanted to watch a movie filled with Star Wars references, I'd watch Star Wars.
With Machete Kills, Rodriguez is trying to hit the notes of a cool movie by exploiting that moment instead of just making a cool movie.
As mentioned, Charlie Sheen plays the president of the United States and barks lines like, "I'm the President of the fucking United States, man." Later, he makes drug references and we see him in bed with multiple women. Do we really need a movie with more jokes about the fact that Charlie Sheen sleeps with a lot of women and likes to do drugs? Who at this point says, "Do you know what would be clever? What if we made jokes about Sheen's promiscuity and his drug use?" Look, anyone could be forgiven for not watching Two and a Half Men, but at least do a Google search to learn that these two jokes were the primary outline of a very popular television sitcom that Sheen starred on for eight seasons.
And then there's Mel Gibson. The other day I came across the 1994 movie Maverick. It's almost as if we've wiped from our memories of how charming Mel Gibson used to be. It used to be fun to watch him charm his way through a movie like Maverick with a wink and a smile, but watching it now just makes me sad. Like Sheen, Gibson and his many personal problems are brought to this movie as stunt casting. And, admittedly, the greatest appeal to this movie before I saw it was my curiosity of what Gibson might deliver at the film's villain. Unfortunately, Gibson is basically playing the Mark Hamill role from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. He's hamming it up as if people will think what he's doing is "fun" as opposed to the reality: that watching an Oscar-winning director reduced to this type of thing is just depressing (no matter how big of a jerk he might be in real life).
I really hope movies like Machete Kills cease to exist. This isn't a movie as much as it is a 108-minute reminder of that moment. That moment Charlie Sheen did drugs. That moment you remember from The Empire Strikes Back. That moment Mel Gibson stopped being relevant.
I get the feeling Rodriguez thinks that the reaction to Machete Kills will either be adoration or, from the detractors, some sort of anger over the film's violence, or whatever. Instead, the whole movie just made me sad. And I hope Rodriguez can once again find the filmmaker who used to make daring movies instead of unintentionally depressing ones.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.