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Homage is a tricky thing: it’s no mean feat getting the perfect balance between exacting reproduction and unique perspectives. The original era of grindhouse and exploitation films weren’t really setting out to create a singular aesthetic: this was more the result of budgetary concerns, current events, audience expectations and the technology of the time. When modern filmmakers attempt to emulate the late ’60s-’70s grindhouse aesthetic, it’s always filtered through a modern sensibility, usually the hyper self-awareness that’s plagued us since the days of Pop-Up Videos. Adding fake film grain and scratches to a modern film doesn’t automatically make it a genuine grindhouse film any more than donning fake fangs makes one a genuine vampire.

That being said, many modern films have managed to emulate the grindhouse/exploitation aesthetic to varying degrees of success. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie have all mined the drive-in days of old for films that manage, in one way or the other, to add another few brushstrokes to the overall mural. Chilean auteur Ernesto Díaz Espinoza certainly isn’t the first filmmaker to make us check the wall calendar: while his Bring Me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman (2012) is far from perfect and quite a ways from obvious influence El Mariachi (1992), it’s not without its charms and possesses a gonzo sense of energy and invention that often helps to smooth over the rough spots. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the film is nearly as lethal as its titular badass.

Like Rodriguez’s debut, BMTHOTMGW is about the path that an unlikely sad-sack takes from meek acceptance to ass-kicking independence. Our hero, in this case, is Santiago (Matías Oviedo), a small-town DJ who still lives at home with his mother (Francisca Castillo), plays way too much Grand Theft Auto and makes money, on the side, from mob boss Che Longana (Jorge Alis). Longana is the kind of bat-shit crime lord who’s surrounded by topless ballroom dancers, thinks nothing of wasting his own henchmen for the slightest infractions and rules by complete and absolute fear.

Poor Santiago runs afoul of his boss after he happens to overhear Longana discussing a hit on his former girlfriend, the legendary bounty-killer Machine Gun Woman (Fernanda Urrejola). MGW is the kind of person who struts around in a barely-there leather lingerie and fur coat ensemble, mercilessly blasting anything that moves before sawing off heads in order to collect the attached bounties: in other words, not the kind of person you normally want to fuck with. In order to save his own skin, Santiago promises to deliver MGW to Longana, come hell or high water.

From this point on, Santiago enters his own version of the beloved Grand Theft Auto, each new step along his path of personal growth designated by such video game friendly titles as “Mission 01: Get a Clue With Shadeline Soto” or “Mission 03: Get a Gun.” Along the way, Santiago must avoid the other bounty killers, each with their own quirks and Warriors-approved outfits (the lethal chinchinero and his mini-me son were personal favorites). When he finally comes face-to-face with the deadliest killer of them all, Santiago faces a feeling altogether different from fear…love. Will the humble DJ face his fears and double-cross the most feared man in Chile or will he crack under the pressure and turn his back on true love? Unlike his video games, Santiago is only going to get one chance to get this right…will it be love or the head of the Machine Gun Woman?

Despite a few glaring issues and the overridingly gimmicky core concept (the Grand Theft Auto angle wears out its welcome quickly), Bring Me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman ends up being a breezy, painless watch, not terribly far removed from the films with which it bears allegiance. The retro-visualization works well overall (the credits are spot-on and the musical score, by eponymous Rocco, is great), although the look is let-down quite a bit by the generally flat lighting: at times, BMTHOTMGW very much looks like a modern, low-budget film gussied up with film grain and random scratches.

Acting-wise, the film tends to be broad, which suits the overall vibe to a tee. Oviedo is likable as the hapless Santiago, although the film has a distressing tendency to make him more of a passive observer to the events than an active participant: it isn’t until the climax that he really gets a chance to let loose. Urrejola does a fine job as the almost mythically lethal Machine Gun Woman, although it’s worth noting that her character is just about as one-note as they come: MGW is an asskicking sexpot, nothing more, nothing less. She belongs to the same video game traditions that spawned similar characters like Lara Croft, traditions that dictate female action stars must show as much skin as possible and act lasciviously whenever the plot needs a little jolt. It’s no more (or less) offensive a representation than many others in the past but BMTHOTMGW does a pretty good of fetishizing Urrejola to an almost distressing degree.

The villains are all nice and slimy, which befits a film like this, with Alis having the biggest blast as the scenery-chewing, howlingly-mad mob boss. In many ways, Alis’ Che Longana hearkens back to the glory days of films like Andy Sidaris’ classic Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) and his ludicrously over-the-top death scene is truly one for the ages. There’s also the aforementioned variety with the various bounty killers (let’s hear it, again, for that father-son duo and the really smart riff on Kill Bill (2003)), which not only helps to play up the video game aspect (at times, the film definitely reminded me of Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), although that was more structure-related than visual) but also injects much-needed originality into the premise.

While too much of the film seems to fall into generic indie-action territory (lots of noisy shootouts and gratuitous slo-mo), Espinoza finds plenty of new ways to riff on old motifs. The garage “oil check” scene is bracingly original, if thoroughly unpleasant, while the scene where Santiago’s iPod (it has 30,000 songs on it) is treated as if it were Marcellus Wallace’s fabled briefcase is patently great. It’s quite clear that Espinoza (who also scripted the film) has a few new wrinkles to add, whenever he steps away from the more well-trod path.

In the end, the well-trod path is what, ultimately, keeps Bring Me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman from having the impact it might have had. The film is lots of goofy fun, no two ways about it, but it never approaches the zany abandon of something like classic Troma or even Jason Eisener’s neo-classic Hobo With a Shotgun (2011). This, of course, is exactly what a film like this really needs: when you have a fur-coat-and-bikini-bedecked assassin spraying bullets every which way but loose, restraint should be the last thing you’re thinking about.

When Espinoza’s film works, it provides more than its share of pleasures (guilty and otherwise), although it never hits the consistent highs of El Mariachi. Here’s to hoping that Ernesto Díaz Espinoza continues to sharpen his blade: if he can make match his explotiation-leaning aesthetic to a genuinely subversive edge, I have a feeling that filmmakers might be paying him homage in the not-to-distant future.

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