The sequel “Machete Kills” opens with a fake trailer for a not-yet-produced third installment, then spends the next 100-plus minutes making a case for plunging a knife into the franchise’s heart.
This “Mex-ploitation” action series was hilarious as a trailer in “Grindhouse” and outrageous enough to float one feature film, but the series has gone dull around the edges.
No one has ever accused director Robert Rodriguez of being a great artist, but even his talent at making shamelessly bizarre, no-holds-barred genre entertainment seems to have him eluded him here.
This second “Machete” is even more lifeless and perfunctory than Rodriguez’s fourth “Spy Kids” movie, without even offering up that earlier sequel’s scratch-and-sniff card as a distraction.
Picking up where the previous movie left off, Machete (Danny Trejo) and his lady love Sartana (Jessica Alba) fight together against the drug cartels. What looks like a typical sale of arms between U.S. soldiers and narcotraficantes soon reveals a more sinister plot, and a gunman wearing a luchador mask shoots Sartana dead.
Machete is taken into custody, where a redneck sheriff (William Sadler) attempts to kill him, but Machete is soon summoned to the White House by President Rathcock (Charlie Sheen, billed under his real name, Carlos Estevez) for a secret mission.
Revolutionary Marcos Mendez (Demian Bichir) has threatened to shoot a missile at the White House if the U.S. won’t invade Mexico and take out all the drug lords, and only Machete can foil his evil plot. To find the villain, he must cross paths with undercover agent Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard) as well as Cereza (Vanessa Hudgens), who lives in a house of ill repute run by the man-hating and heavily armed Madame Desdemona (Sofia Vergara).
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Since the missile is hard-wired into Mendez’s heart, Machete must keep him alive until they can find the creator of the weapon, no easy feat since there’s a bounty on both their heads, putting every thug and lawman in Mexico and the U.S. on their trail. Eventually, Machete must face off with arms merchant Voz (Mel Gibson), who has an insane plan to destroy the world while orbiting above Earth in his ark. (Thus setting up the completely unnecessary “Machete Kills Again … in Space.”)
Rodriguez and novice screenwriter Kyle Ward offer up a few decent gags and set pieces (a blurry sex scene that follows an on-screen admonition to “Put on Your 3D Glasses Now,” a master-of-disguise assassin who’s portrayed by a series of recognizable performers), but the action here quickly feels rote and uninspired. The first time we see someone get disemboweled by helicopter blades, it’s funny; when six more people meet their fate via whirlybird rotor or motorboat propeller in the next five minutes, the thrill is gone.
Too often, Ward and Rodriguez seem content to coast on references to other movies and TV shows, from the obvious shout-outs to “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” to more subtle nods to “Moonraker” and low-budget gore-fest “Screamers.” (The latter film’s memorable tag line promised, “You will actually see a man turned inside out!” Rodriguez, for better or worse, delivers on that promise.)
Trejo, as always, does stoic like nobody else, and the rest of the cast relishes the opportunity to camp it up madly, although they do so with varying degrees of success. Vergara’s hilarious on TV, but she almost always comes off as overbearing on the big screen. Bichir follows up his Oscar-nominated turn in “A Better Life” with a knowingly twitchy and ridiculous performance (his character has multiple personalities), while Gibson chews the scenery like a pro.
All “Machete Kills” had to be was fun. But it isn’t.