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The cinematic axiom of diminishing returns appears to be catching up with Robert Rodriguez’s Machete franchise in only the second installment, as the series’ engagingly lowbrow concept gets overwhelmed by episodic plotting and uninspired, rote performances.
Rodriguez’s mashup of exploitation-film staples and action conventions yielded 2010’s guilty pleasure Machete and more than $44 million in global box office, but lightning seems unlikely to strike so fortuitously twice. Even a modest theatrical showing, however, may be enough to favorably tip the balance sheets when combined with predictably brisk sales in home-entertainment formats.
Called into action by no less than the POTUS (Carlos Estevez, aka Charlie Sheen) to halt half-crazy, wannabe revolutionary Mendez (Demian Bichir), whose generic determination to launch a nuclear missile at Washington threatens the entire globe, unflappable Mexican secret agent and ex-Federale Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) returns to take on a mission south of the U.S. border. He’s spurred in no small part by the president’s spontaneous grant of citizenship, along with the adept and amorous assistance of Ms. San Antonio (Amber Heard), a blond-bombshell undercover agent with access to significant firepower — although among her impressive arsenal, Machete naturally favors the shiny, multibladed weapon that she proffers.
Once he’s dodged multiple bounty hunters intent on claiming the multimillion-dollar price on his head, Machete comes up against the mastermind behind the nuclear-detonation plot, evil arms manufacturer Voz (Mel Gibson), who has more on his mind than just threatening the global community with widespread destruction.
Rodriguez and screenwriter Kyle Ward employ the Machete character as the jumping-off point for the sequel, mostly dispensing with plot connections to its predecessor. Although Michelle Rodriguez returns as Machete’s tough-talking sidekick Luz, gone is any focus on The Network, her underground group that aggressively assisted undocumented Mexican migrants from her taco truck on the Texas side of the border. Beyond her obvious skills with weapons-handling, Ms. Rodriguez again struts and scowls her way through the movie in a futile attempt to one-up Machete.
If anything, character actor-turned-unlikely star Trejo allows Machete’s stereotypical reserve to carry his performance even more so than in the first installment, confining his barely inflected line readings to eliciting essential information and succinct pronouncements like “Machete don’t tweet.” Rather, it’s the supporting cast’s characterizations of his legendary status that define Machete, along with his casual approach to near-incessant bloodletting.
Heard alternately primps and poses her way through most of her scenes, until she’s finally able to unleash a climactic, but relatively tame attack on Luz in the movie’s final minutes. Sofia Vergara goes way over the top as a man-hating dominatrix madame leading a posse of stripped-down, gun-toting hookers and sporting some particularly lethal lingerie.
Certainly the movie’s nonstop cameo appearances, facilitated by a bounty-hunter character known as The Chameleon who’s constantly changing appearances, instill a degree of intermittent interest, as Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas and Walton Goggins all cycle through the role with varying degrees of wisecracking and smirking. Rodriguez can claim some credit for providing Lady Gaga with her feature film debut as another iteration of the assassin, but it’s not exactly an auspicious start.
With noticeably decreased star wattage, Machete Kills begins to show tread wear early on, following Estevez’s manic turn as the liquor-swilling, skirt-chasing president. Bichir’s schizoid guerilla leader elicits neither humor nor dread, but things perk up a bit with Gibson’s appearance as the deranged weapons supplier, although the performance is far too one-note and drags on way too long to provide profitable distraction.
As both director and cinematographer, Rodriguez shoots the proceedings with a madcap precision and retro devotion to B-movie stereotypes that befits a more accomplished film; thankfully, however, his flair for visual humor remains reassuringly intact. While Machete succeeded on the basis of its delightfully lurid absurdity, the follow-up fails to capitalize on much of that momentum. Both the faux trailer at the beginning of the movie and a brief reprise before the closing credits tip a Machete-Planet Terror hybrid for the potential threequel: Machete Kills Again… In Space, a prospect that defies both plausibility and probability.
Production: Quick Draw Productions, Aldamisa Entertainment, Overnight Productions, 1821 Pictures
Cast: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, Carlos Estevez, Antonio Banderas, Lady Gaga, Cuba Gooding Jr., Walton Goggins, William Sadler, Demian Bichir, Mel Gibson, Vanessa Hudgens
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenwriter: Kyle Ward
Producers: Robert Rodriguez, Rick Schwartz, Segei Bespalov, Alexander Rodnyansky, Aaron Kaufman, Iliana Nikolic
Executive Producers: Boris Teterev, Jere Hausfater, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis, Mark C. Manuel, Anthony Gudas, Alfonso Barragan, Terry Douglas, Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson, John Paul Dejoria
Director of photography: Robert Rodriguez
Production designer: Steve Joyner
Costume designer: Nina Proctor
Editors: Robert Rodriguez, Rebecca Rodriguez
Music: Robert Rodriguez, Carl Thiel
Rated R, 107 minutes
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