Mild-mannered DJ and gamer Santiago (Matias Oviedo) gets caught listening when gangster Che Longana (Jorge Alis) and his associates plan a hit on sexy badass bounty hunter the Machinegun Woman (Fernanda Urrejola) before she kills them. Facing death, in a state of panic, Santiago rashly offers to kill the Machinegun Woman himself and bring back her head as proof. An amused Che Longana takes him at his word. So Santiago finds himself doing the unthinkable. Just buying a handgun off the black market proves dangerous enough but Santiago soon ends up out of his depth, competing with an array of outlandish professional killers in pursuit of a one-woman army who is all but unstoppable.
This Chilean low-budget action-comedy is a significant improvement over Ernesto Diaz Espinoza's last notable international release, the enthusiastic but morally confused martial arts pastiche Kiltro (2006). Co-written with charismatic leading lady Fernanda Urrejola, a big soap opera star in Chile, it is yet another fan-boy pastiche of Seventies grindhouse cinema very reminiscent of early Robert Rodriguez, especially El Mariachi (1992). As such Espinoza adopts a grainy grindhouse aesthetic with a crackly soundtrack, phoney scratches on the print, gratuitous splatter, a cool retro-Eighties synth score (the titular anti-heroine's theme deliberately evokes The Terminator (1984)) and film geek in-jokes referencing scores of crime, horror and action films (Santiago hatches his plan after watching Sam Peckinpah's grimy masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)). So far so sophomoric. Indeed both a running gag where the hero re-imagines his predicament as a real-life Grand Theft Auto-style video game and the conceit of introducing each new character with a mock spaghetti western freeze frame on a wanted poster slowly wear out their welcome through overuse.
However, Bring Me the Head of the Machinegun Woman has something that the more recent retro-styled efforts of Rodriguez and his many imitators sorely lack, which is wit and heart. Espinoza wisely enriches his film geek enthusiasm for Seventies exploitation tropes with a compelling story laced with engaging characters and a disarming emotional core. The plot runs with a neat film noir-ish idea with a hapless hero thrust into a terrifying situation that starts bad and gets worse and worse. Espinoza indulges in a fair amount of juvenile sadism and gore (one gag where a gaucho assassin accidentally shoots off his own face is genuinely funny) but still yokes a powerful sense of panic as events spiral out of control. In its brighter moments, chiefly dealing with Santiago's strained relationship with his long-suffering mother (Francisco Castillo) and frustrated romantic yearning for his alluring antagonist, the film's ambitions recall Shaun of the Dead (2004). Coping with increasingly outlandish events forces the hitherto juvenile hero to grow up. Although not as accomplished as the Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg zom-rom-com, Espinoza's film pulls off an oddball romance that is genuinely moving and sweet.
Obviously a torrid liaison between a video game geek and a sadomasochistic bombshell assassin in racy fetish gear is the stuff teenage boys' dreams are made of. Yet things play out in unexpectedly charming, Latin soap opera tragicomic fashion, once again reminiscent of El Mariachi. Though shot on a shoestring the film stands as lesson to camcorder auteurs everywhere on the strength of its technique, energy and ingenuity (Espinoza stages the finale as a first-person shooter, three years before Hardcore Henry (2016)). Moreover the performances are lively and personable. Matias Oviedo is a compelling, sympathetic hero while Fernanda Urrejola is a dynamic screen presence. It almost goes without saying she also cuts a seriously sexy fetish figure in fur coat, leather bikini in fishnet stockings with strap-on machineguns and stiletto boots.