Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?
Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.
Dole Office Clerk: What?
Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.
Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a *bullshit* artist!
– History of the World: Part I, The Roman Empire
By and large, comics are storytellers. Sure, they may wax poetic on the issues of the day, but they do so in ways that make audiences react. It could be laughter, it could be tears, but they react. Through that, comics are able to make connections, making audiences feel linked to the comic and their singular experience. Then there are stories that audiences would much rather hear about and envision than actually relate to, such as Bert Kreischer’s Russian mafia story. According to the 15-minute featurette “Bert’s Big Bash – Premiere Party,” originally live-streamed into theaters ahead of The Machine’s theatrical premiere, when Kreischer was a kid, he went on a school trip to study in Moscow and found himself branded with a nickname, The Machine, and inadvertently found himself helping to rob the very train his classmates were riding. Borrowing the premise of this story, first-time feature writer Kevin Biegel and co-writer Scotty Landes (Ma) build out an action dramedy in which a fictional version of Kreischer must face the consequences of his youth while dealing with family issues. Directed by Peter Atencio (Keanu), The Machine is an entertaining affair with plenty of comedic and action-centric surprises amid a theme we’ve seen played out in a variety of ways. With nearly an hour of special features included with the home release, fans of the film (and the generally curious) can get a deeper understanding of just how far Kreischer himself went to bring this wildly unbelievably true story into the realm of pure fiction.
After hitting a personal low, comedian Bert Kreischer (Kreischer) decides to take time off from touring and enter therapy in order to figure out how to address his most recent mistakes which put his eldest daughter, Sasha (Jessica Gabor), in jeopardy. Hoping to repair the damage done, he goes to great lengths for her 16th birthday party, a choice that goes against her wishes and results in further separation between the pair. Already low, things get worse when his estranged father, Albert (Mark Hamill), appears and immediately starts criticizing all of Bert’s choices. Just when Bert is about to confront his father, Idina (Iva Babić) appears, asking if he’s The Machine and, upon receiving confirmation, takes him and Albert at gunpoint back to Russia, because, all those years ago, Bert stole something very precious from one of the passengers and she wants it back immediately, killing anyone that gets in her way.
It’s been seven years since Atencio last directed a feature and it’s clear that he hasn’t missed a step. There’s solid pacing throughout the film, the humor is grounded even while being completely ridiculous, and the heart of the narrative is consistent throughout. Of course, this means that you’re already aware of how the film’s going to end (it’s a manufactured version of the truth, sure, but it’s also a broad comedy so it’s not going to get weird with the conclusion), requiring that the journey to get there needs to be packed with moments that make the expected wrap-up mean something. To accomplish this, Atencio utilizes some brilliant editing choices in order to blend the present with the past, often doing so in-camera so that the audience actually feels transported as Bert-present tells the story of Bert-past (Jimmy Tatro). My favorite application of this is when Bert, Albert, and Idina arrive in Moscow at the school he attended all those years ago and the camera pans around Bert-present, the background transforming into the late ‘90s before us as the road and cross-street appear. It’s slick and smooth, a perfect example of the simple power of movie-making. This, of course, is directly tied to the method of the script in unveiling how The Machine was born, what Bert thought of himself then, and how he reconciles who he is today. Rather than tell us the story in all the details up front, Bert-present’s quest to find the pocket watch he stole all those years ago, the memories of that time a bit of a blur, is used as the means to reactivate his memory. Think of it like a more comedic The Bourne Identity (2002) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), except instead of bone-shattering action or a profound realization of self that shatters audiences, the journey into the past reveals that the truth is merely a matter of perspective and that we’re all burdened by the weight of our parents.
Given the smart staging and execution of action in Keanu, one shouldn’t be surprised that The Machine does deliver on the promise of fisticuffs, as well. According to the bonus features and Kreischer’s premiere intro), the comedian did as many of the stunts he could himself, even to the point of requiring surgery on his left arm. One doesn’t get the impression that Kreischer was trying to replace the stunt person or was coming from a purely macho place; rather, he wanted to make sure that the level of authenticity was as high as it could be. However, when it came time for a stunt like rolling down the stairs mid-fight with Robert Maaser’s (1917) Alexei, he let the stunt person do the full steps and he only shot the start and stop. The bonus here is that the comedy works a lot better knowing that Kreischer is the one doing the poorly-executed punching and getting tossed for distance or, when The Machine is activated, going positively ballistic, because it comes off as Bert-present actually getting put through the physical/emotional ringer through this quest rather than just seeing a stunt person getting shot at, stabbed, and thrown off a train. The action is a critical part in communicating the change of Bert-present, as well as that of those around him, conveying the internal shift the characters go through from start to finish, as well as propelling the characters forward in an entertaining way. This is indicative of an action film that recognizes that stunt work, when used properly, is another tool in moving the narrative forward and not a stop along the way. Credit where it’s due, Babić is extraordinary here. According to the special features, she has a dancer’s background and it shows in the fluidity of her executed choreography.
Considering the growing shift away from including special features on home releases, The Machine defies expectations by giving home-viewing audiences a variety of things to explore. There’s the aforementioned 15-minute live-stream intro from the premiere that takes time to be silly and sincere (including a shout-out to the WGA strike that had begun by then), but there’s also a seven-minute look at the action, a general eight-minute making-of featurette, a nine-minute featurette focusing on the cast, nearly eight-minutes of deleted scenes, a gag reel, and previews for other Sony productions (most on home video already). Features like these really show off how much thought goes into even the smallest gag, making one appreciate how easy it all looks when it’s on screen. By the way, according to the press release, these materials are equally dispersed no matter the format you select, so snag the one that best fits your preference, physical or digital, and you should get everything that’s listed below. Far too many home releases have a piece or two (or more) gate-kept to either digital-only or physical-only, so it’s nice to see a release that doesn’t participate in that kind of special features disunion.
Look, The Machine doesn’t break the mold in terms of how Bert goes from the worst dad to a better human, but it’s entertaining and possesses quite a few surprises thanks to the structure, editing, performances, and action. (Plus, who hasn’t wondered “What if the Joker settled down and was more passive-aggressive than homicidal? Hamill’s performance addresses this clearly.) With so many saying that’s there’s no desire for a mid-range broad comedy, it’s nice to see a film that delivers on everything it promises. Repeat value is absolutely up to the beholder, of course, but there’s enough here that one can have a good time with it, even if not a great one.
The Machine Special Features:
- Bert’s Big Bash – Premiere Party (15:42)
- Bert, Bruised & Brawlin’: The Action of The Machine (7:03)
- The Making of The Machine (8:01)
- The Cast of The Machine (9:06)
- Outtakes & Bloopers (2:30)
- Four (4) Deleted Scenes (7:58)
- Four (4) Previews (10:10)
Available on digital June 20th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD August 15th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official The Machine website.
For more information on how to see Bert Kreischer live, head to his official website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.