VOD Releases: Cartel 2045 (2018) - Reviewed

Premiering on your favorite on-demand streaming platform this May, Cartel 2045 is a movie that appears to have a lot going on. It's a military action thriller with sci-fi elements set in Juarez, Mexico nearly 30 years in the future. Imagine Sicario, but with the Terminator instead of Benicio del Toro. It may sound entertaining and fun, but the finished product never manages to be more than wasted potential covered in false grit with a side of monotony.

Cartel 2045 has a lot of ideas that are very cool, and for the kind of movie it is, not at all far-fetched. In 2045, robot soldiers have not only already been implemented, but also banned internationally by a NATO-like treaty. It doesn’t take long for this powerful decommissioned technology to fall into the wrong hands—like, for instance, the Mexican drug cartels. It's up to an American Special Forces team led by a troubled ex-soldier turned mercenary to infiltrate the cartel and rescue the kidnapped robot scientist before he can help the cartel build even more powerful robotic weapons. But just because something sounds like it might be a fun video game doesn't mean it will translate well to an interesting movie.

It's clear watching Cartel 2045 exactly what kind of movie it wants to be. Director Chris Le, making his feature debut here, worships at the altar of Robert Rodriguez, perhaps a bit too obviously. The film has a grimy, grindhouse look, even enhanced by digital "film" grain and scratches, that just feels weirdly anachronistic when combined with the film's attempted futurism. The robot effects in particular feel like a strange combination of CGI and stop animation and just come off as clunky and a bit awkward. It's hard to tell if this was an esthetic choice, meant to evoke the kind of old school charm of seeing the 30-year-old ED-209 effects in RoboCop, or technological limitations based on the film's obviously low budget. Either way, they don't work as well as they would like to think they do.

It's remarkable how a movie that's filled with gun battles and fighting robots can be so disinteresting. It's a dull slog through action movie clichés to get to the next big scene, but there's hardly enough here to keep anyone's interest. Iconic character actor Danny Trejo, who has never said no to a movie role in his career, at least seems to be having the usual amount of fun playing the kingpin of the cartel, and any time he shows up to chew on some scenery the movie is better for it. The rest of the cast is nowhere near his caliber, rattling off their boilerplate action movie lines as if it were a contest to appear the least interested in the material they're performing.

There's a clear divide between the movie Cartel 2045 wants to be and the movie it is. It packages itself as a mindless thrill ride, with cool fighting robots and a slick gritty look and Danny Trejo. Unfortunately, there's precious little actual entertainment to be had here. What could, and should, have been trashy grindhouse fun just ends up being stilted, repetitive action wrapped in ambitious but half-baked sci-fi. Cartel 2045 wants to be so many things, but with the exception of the always entertaining Trejo, never manages to succeed at any of them. Cartel 2045 is a slick but slow misfire that aims impressively high but falls hard. 

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-Mike Stec