Fantastic Fest Review: 'Machete Kills'

More focused and less preachy than its exploitation-riffing predecessor, the comparably shoddy “Machete Kills” nonetheless peters out in the homestretch (and, for some, surely sooner). Until then, it’s something resembling a good time, sending up careers and clichés alike in the name of bad taste and even worse effects.

Danny Trejo returns as the much-feared ex-Federale-turned-American operative, commissioned by the President (Charlie Sheen, credited under birth name Carlos Estevez) to sneak into Mexico and eliminate schizophrenic revolutionary “Madman” Mendez (Demian Bichir), who has aimed a missile at Washington D.C. Along the way, Machete has to contend with a maniacal arms dealer (an amusingly subdued Mel Gibson), a vengeful madame (Sofia Vergara), a racist sheriff (William Sadler), a kickboxing henchman (Marko Zorar) and a covert assassin suitably named The Chameleon, who takes on the form of enough familiar faces that I may as well not spoil the slight surprise.

Like the last film, it’s an overcrowded affair -- as of yet unmentioned: Amber Heard as a government liaison in the guise of a Texas beauty queen, Vanessa Hudgens as Mendez’ latest romantic conquest, and Jessica Alba’s brief reappearance as an immigration agent -- but at least director/co-writer/every-other-position-er Robert Rodriguez seems dedicated to embracing a Bond-aping mode (“Moonraker” specifically) from the blood-splattered title sequence onward in an effort to marshal countless subplots into something resembling a ticking-clock narrative. Despite escalating the scale of office from a corrupt governor to a desperate president, the political debate that informed 2010’s “Machete” falls by the wayside here, save for a passing mention of vanishing immigrants (“It’s like aliens are abducting aliens!”).

In keeping with the greatest hits, Machete does conduct another nasty bit of business involving the removal of entrails, and there are countless eye-rolling variations on the “Machete don’t (verb)” catchphrase. Did you like Johnny Depp’s blinded assassin in “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”? Well, someone else gets the Zatoichi treatment this time around, while Tom Savini’s penis-shaped pistol from “From Dusk Till Dawn” makes a return strapped to another’s thighs. The been-there-killed-that repetition is offset a fair bit by some game performances, with Gibson and Sheen getting the “good sport” award for subverting their own tabloid-drawing images (which Lindsay Lohan was basically invited to embrace last time).

Neither matches the sheer zeal of Bichir’s turn, playing Dr. Jekyll by way of Tony Montana as he and Machete embark on a “Midnight Run”-like gauntlet with a “Crank”-worthy twist. He’s a giddy foil to our gruff lead, and it should be said that the picture begins to deflate roughly around his departure, not helped by Rodriguez’s winky preparations for “Machete Kills Again in Space,” a preview for which precedes this film. Yes, it’s a fake trailer for a potential second sequel to a real movie based on another fake trailer, and if we’re being honest, it and all of the silliness that follows would be a bit more fun if it weren’t so exhausting.

SCORE: 6.4 / 10