Robert Rodriguez's new "Machete Kills" is the strongest example yet of the corner the filmmaker seems to have painted himself into, a sad funhouse of bad movies made in thrall of bad movies. Even the self-sufficiency of Rodriguez having his own production facilities in Austin, Texas, seems to be yielding diminishing returns, as so much of what he has done recently feels like wandering into the backyard to idle away a day.
The story of "Machete Kills" follows a blade-wielding secret agent (Danny Trejo) as he attempts to stop a power-mad industrialist (Mel Gibson) bent on nuclear destruction and interstellar domination. Trejo's Machete character grew out of a fake movie trailer included in the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration "Grindhouse." He was then spun off into his own feature, "Machete," and now this sequel.
In some ways, the worst thing to ever happen to Rodriguez as a filmmaker could be his friendship and affiliation with Tarantino. Where Tarantino takes genre tropes, clichéd characters and sketchy ideas and turns them inside out, upside down and wrings unexpected emotional resonance from what should be unworkable parts, Rodriguez, without Tarantino's ear for dialogue or uncanny sense of structure, is rarely able to spin his stories into something more. So "Machete Kills" winds up a slightly camp, tinny parody of bad action movies, playing out with the same sense of tedium as a genuine bad action movie.
Trejo, a fantastic screen presence, has been better used as a supporting character elsewhere than as a leading man here, as his gruff charms reach their outer limits. The extensive supporting cast of "Machete Kills" all seems a bit confused and left on their own. Charlie Sheen (billed as Carlos Estevez) plays Charlie Sheen as the president, while Gibson brings a darkly crazed tinge to his turn as the film's villain. Numerous other performers, including Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., Demian Bichir, Sofia Vergara, Vanessa Hudgens and Lady Gaga (in her movie debut) all don't so much appear as pass through.
Arguably the film's best moment is an end-credits outtake of Michelle Rodriguez and Amber Heard, salty and breezy where the rest of the feature itself is course and stiff. Robert Rodriguez's best films, "Desperado" and "Sin City," wrestle with bad movies to turn up something uniquely good. In "Machete Kills" it seems the bad has pinned down the good, making the film feel like a defeat.
"Machete Kills." Running time: 1 hour and 47 minutes. R for strong bloody violence throughout, language and some sexual content. In wide release.