Robert Rodriguez isn't one for false pleasantries: if you didn't like "Machete," you really won't think much of "Machete Kills," and he's okay with that. This sequel to the 2010 actioner seems to exist mostly for his hardcore base and as a favor for good friend Danny Trejo, who plays the pockmarked, laconic hero of the title. Not even original distributor Fox wanted any part of the continued adventures of the Ex-Federale who never met a fireball he couldn't fly through with the grace of an eagle and the fierceness of a tiger, as this adventure comes courtesy of the good folks at Open Road. But this is no course correction: anyone who has ever seen a Rodriguez film, or has seen his career evolve (devolve?) into the bare essentials of camp exploitation, knows what to expect.
Machete, last seen at the end of the earlier film speeding away as a legend, is still doing his share of dirty work at the start of this sequel, which wastes no time giving Trejo his latest opportunity to be awesome onscreen. Trejo, an unlikely star, worked his way up from actually being an ex-con and recovering drug addict to bit parts as an extra, and seeing him growl and pose his way through another one of Rodriguez's openly-phony action sequences still carries a certain affectionate pleasure. It's arguably true that this is the ultimate dream for any actor: end up in a role where you don't have to do much, and Trejo's natural stillness is the least special, and therefore most special, effect in all Rodriguez's films. His Machete remains less a character and more of a sketch of a badass, but like its predecessor, "Machete Kills" is never less than busy with ridiculousness.
Moments away from certain death, Machete is rescued by a last-minute pardon from the President (Charlie Sheen, or "Carlos Estevez" — a loaded but not meaningless application of his birth name). Washington D.C. is under siege by a madman with a nuke, aiming it at the Capitol and demanding the government infiltrate Mexico and clean up the corrupt cartel violence, and it's up to Machete to save America, earning himself a pardon and citizenship. The President's offer isn't a request, so Machete ends up headed into the heart of Mexico, parachuting into a burning Acapulco unnoticed, in one of the film's sillier gags that suggests there's some Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker in its DNA.
The villain in question is supposed-revolutionary Mendez, who represents a clever critique of Mexico's complex relationship with culturally-embedded violence (see: this movie, or upcoming documentary "Narco Cultura"). He wants to clean up Mexico, to avoid the complications that come from country-wide violence often ignored or even sponsored by fat-pocketed politicians and crooked law enforcement officials. He's also got an actual split personality, and the Hyde part of him is a Looney Tune of complete violence, which likely serves as a critique of the mileage Mexico's contemporary culture gets from this association with cartel-driven violence. Demian Bichir, who plays Mendez, is known for giving overly serious, noble performances in the FX series "The Bridge" and the Oscar-nominated "A Better Life." How much fun does he have playing this buck-toothed, bug-eyed maniac? All of it. He has all the fun.
This isn't just some regular nuke, though. It's another one of those ticking time-bombs, one that sends Machete on a wild goose chase, where he crosses paths with an endless coterie of dangerous enemies and skilled friends. One is cannibal madam Desdemona, who barks and hisses with the growl of Sofia Vergara and the phallic weaponry of past Rodriguez characters; there's probably nothing to say about the sexual identity issues one can surmise from her firing bullets from her brassiere as well as from a pistol coming from her crotch. Amber Heard credibly sneers and preens as the shady Miss San Antonio, the only woman in this installment who goes to bed with Machete instead of the many lovers he takes in the first picture. And Mel Gibson is loose and funny as a cult leader with a "Star Wars" fixation who can deliver his lines in a way that suggests appropriate dramatic weight as well as a clear understanding of the picture's ridiculous tone. By the time he's in full luchador gear clutching a lightsaber, Gibson sells it with minimal fuss.
Rodriguez appears to have seduced more than a few names into his latest pet project, and on a base level, "Machete Kills" works as sort of a Big Name Roll-Call, even when showing off less-familiar performers like unsung martial artist Marko Zaror. Quentin Tarantino, probably also a fan, would likely give Zaror three lines and cut his best material. Rodriguez makes him literally invincible. Such is the nature of Rodriguez's style, all money shots, no seduction. The great Wesley Morris once described Lee Daniels, in directing "Lee Daniels' The Butler," as "Oliver Stone without the intellectual condom." I suspect the relationship is similar between Tarantino and Rodriguez, good friends who have informed each others' films and sensibilities. It's easy to see that a prolonged close-up of Heard's manicured toes is something of a love letter to his foot-fetishist buddy. In that aspect, it's quite touching.
Rodriguez is similarly sloppy in using a few larger names in the service of a character named The Chameleon. This contract killer ends up on the trail after Machete, and his misadventures seem perfunctory and ultimately not germane to the plot. He first appears in the guise of Walton Goggins, and once he is spotted, he removes his face and reveals the appearance of another megastar underneath, often with dramatically different skin color and even sex. It's a gimmick, a dumb one that suggests Rodriguez got everyone involved before even writing the script. When you have a studio in your own garage and the luminescent Michelle Rodriguez on speel-dial, sometimes a few good gags and cheap thrills are all you need. [B+]