Perpetual character actor Leland Orser (his credits include Se7en, Alien: Resurrection and the Taken series) gets a much-deserved lead role in this low-budget drama in which he plays Ansel, a cult deprogrammer and past-his-prime pop psychologist hired by a mother and father to rescue their little girl, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), from her willful immersion in a sketchy, pseudo-religious organization known as Faults. Director Riley Stearns sets a seriocomic tone right from the start, as Ansel tries to con his way into a free meal at a hotel restaurant with a voucher he fished out of the garbage. (When he’s called out by management, he starts shoveling forkfuls of ketchup into his face on the assumption that he won’t get ejected until he’s done eating.) Orser is fantastic in these bits, which establish the general desperateness of his situation. But the film soon gets quieter, and weirder, as he kidnaps Claire and holes up with her in a motel room while her anxious parents wait next door. Fortunately, the film is generally up to the challenge it sets itself; scenes where Ansel and Claire converse, one on one, as he tries to work her out of her delusions even as she evinces an unshakeable faith in her beliefs are plenty compelling for their unpretentious intensity. But the whole thing suffers from too-much-story syndrome, with a subplot about Ansel’s manager (Jon Gries) and his enforcer (the terrific Lance Reddick) looking to extract $20,000 from their near-destitute client feeling dropped in from another movie entirely. “Hey,” you might wonder, “where can this possibly be going that so much extraneous stuff needs to be happening?” It’s distracting and, worse, it’s dull. Still pretty good stuff in all.
Well, this got panned on its release — perhaps justly. But now that it’s on Netflix Instant, where you can queue it up without earmarking any money or committing much time to the experience, it’s in its element. I watched it at the beginning of a long holiday weekend after making a shaker full of margaritas (tequila, triple sec, fresh-squeezed lime juice, no mixers or any bullshit like that) and found that it fairly reliably delivered the laffs, one after another.
No, it’s not an action movie. I think it fancies itself a satire, but it’s not a very good one of those, either. And as grindhouse pastiche, it’s unconvincing. It’s just a live-action cartoon, with inane gags — starting with the garishly spotlighted Wilhelm Scream (presumably a Morricone parody) that punctuates the opening credits — that connect just often enough to keep things interesting. It has Lady Gaga! Mel Gibson! An absurdly brief Walton Goggins cameo! Some tongue-in-cheek reflections on American border paranoia!
I still cringe at the unconvincing CG blood and bullet holes (really? you couldn’t be bothered to just have a make-up guy paint a gunshot wound on that guy’s kneecap?) but when it’s used to allow Machete to tangle a bad guy’s intestines in a whirring helicopter rotor? I guess I’m OK with that. At the very least, it’s rarely boring. And, in contemporary Hollywood, giving a 70-year-old actor of Mexican descent a multiplex action franchise is a mildly subversive act on its own. Would I watch Machete Kills Again … in Space!? Yeah, probably. But I wouldn’t pay 12 bucks for the privilege.