Danny Trejo’s brooding Machete, a blade-wielding ex-con hell-bent on vengeance, emerged from one of those campy-cracklin’ “Coming Attractions” in Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino B-flick homage. The Rodriguez gag trailer previewed a 1970s-style flick that was released in 2010 and has metastasized into a full-blown franchise.
The first Machete combines taut action, grisly violence and sexploitation, a deft balance that’s lacking in Machete Kills. As per usual with sequels, Rodriguez takes what works in the original and revs it up in formulaic fashion. We get more over-the-top everything — celebrity cameos, superbabes, high-tech weaponry and protracted fights and car chases. It’s not just Machete on steroids — it’s Machete on cocaine, meth, Red Bull and Skittles, mainlined into its veins. It’s not that the new flick doesn’t entertain and isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but could use just a little more story, character development and attention to pacing.
The opening drug bust sequence sets the film's frenetic pace with limbs and decapitated heads flying to and fro. Working with the DEA on a covert military arrest, Machete experiences a heartbreaking casualty, which you’d think would saddle the leathery-skin Mexican with a sufficient score to settle, but he’s diverged by the President (Charlie Sheen; billed under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) who assigns Machete to take care of a cray-cray drug lord in Mexico. Later he chases down a maniacal weapons manufacturer played by another fallen idol, Mel Gibson, a zany villain who seems ripped from the pages of an Austin Powers’ script.
Sheen’s role, as expected, comes with cheeky nods to his real-life shenanigans and mouthiness. He engages in White House bedroom ménage a quads and spouts, "Your nation owes you a debt of gratitude, Machete. Go kick some ass!" Gibson, of course, rocks his character’s insanity with brilliance.
Rodriguez’s blatant dismissal of proportion and believability is both epic and, at times, annoying. While B-movie special-effects legends Greg Nicotero and Tom Savini (Savini in an acting role) give the exercise some cred, we can’t escape the obvious: The ginormous budget of Machete Kills could fund a summer of B flicks. Like the critically acclaimed Django Unchained, which also borrows from past exploitation films, it’s debatable whether the derivative shtick has outgrown its allure or is a legit genre unto its own.
Some of the snappier sequences take place during the first half of the film, when Machete captures a revolutionary leader (Demian Bichir of Weeds, forever doomed to be typecast) and he’s battling an embittered whorehouse madam played by Sofia Vergara, whose outfitted weapons offer the film’s signature sight gags. Cameos by Antonio Banderas, Lady Gaga and Cuba Gooding Jr. are amusingly off the wall, too. Once again, too much of a good thing. There's less attention on Trejo, whose intensity recalls Clint Eastwood's misbegotten antiheroes.
When Trejo starred in the first Machete, we couldn’t help but feel some of his pathos and cheer him on amid all the absurdity. We get some of his same smoldering badass charisma in Machete Kills, and a tinge of the satire — Rodriguez deftly lampoons the U.S. immigration policies and corrupt war on drugs — but cheap laughs and over-the-top violence dominate, which is okay if you don’t go into the film expecting more of Rodriguez’s potential brilliance.