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.