Even with 100 minutes of nonstop explosions, knife fights, and gun battles, Machete Kills features more stunt casting than actual stunts. It isn’t a movie so much as a series of excuses to let Danny Trejo scowl at and/or fight a bunch of left-field casting choices. Here’s Sofia Vergara as a madam sporting a Gatling-gun bra; there’s Mel Gibson in a cape and futuristic suit, babbling about his space army. One character, a hitman named “The Chameleon,” has no function beyond furthering the number of famous people director Robert Rodriguez can cram into the movie. The Chameleon first looks like Walt Goggins, then pulls off his “mask” to reveal Cuba Gooding Jr., then does it again to transform into Lady Gaga, and so on.
That character is Machete Kills’ curious aesthetic of frugal excess in a nutshell: It’s a movie with an enormous mythology, made on a shoestring budget, with a look that’s simultaneously epic and chintzy, and a million featured actors, but only one (Trejo) who appears in more than a handful of scenes. There’s no logical reason to force this many stars into a plot that doesn’t need them, particularly since Rodriguez can’t afford to keep any of them them around for more than a few minutes, but then there’s also no logical reason to make a trailer for a movie that doesn’t exist, which is how Machete originated, in Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s exploitation double bill, Grindhouse. What started as a one-joke fake trailer became a one-joke real movie (2010’s Machete), and now this one-joke sequel. It isn’t a bad joke, but it isn’t much of a movie.
The plot can be summed up in two words, both of which are contained in the title. Trejo’s nigh-omnipotent badass is a former Mexican Federale now working for the U.S. government, alongside his true love, Agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba). After a bust goes bad, Machete accepts an offer of employment from America’s president (Charlie Sheen, billed as “Carlos Estevez” for maximum stuntiness). That sends Machete south of the border on a hunt for a drug kingpin with multiple personalities (Demian Bichir) and the crazy billionaire futurist who supplies him with weapons of mass destruction (Mel Gibson).
Gibson’s Luther Voz and his dream of a new society of Übermensches in space are both clearly inspired by the James Bond villain Hugo Drax from Moonraker, and the climactic battle inside Voz’s quasi-futuristic headquarters is loaded with increasingly goofy references to Star Wars, Star Trek, and other famous science-fiction franchises. At this point, Rodriguez is pretty far afield from Machete’s origins in the world of no-budget exploitation, but the movie’s unpredictability and anything-goes attitude has its charms.
If only those charms felt even the slightest bit pointed, and the plot seemed like anything more than the pretext for surprise guest stars. Trejo is certainly an intimidating dude, but as Machete, he’s mostly limited to tough-guy poses and talking in third person. The outrageous supporting characters are designed to distract from the protagonist’s blankness, but they only amplify it by forcing Trejo to play the same tired straight-man schtick opposite one deranged villain after another.
As a focused spoof of exploitation tropes, Machete Kills is, frankly, terrible. But as a surreal stream of subconsciousness from a filmmaker who’s spent a lifetime watching bad movies, it’s an occasionally entertaining diversion. It isn’t particularly clever—not satire so much as self-parody—but at least the cast looks like they’re having a lot of fun fighting over the title of Best Worst Actor. (For those scoring at home, Vergara is your winner.)
The funniest part of Machete Kills is another fake trailer for another upcoming Machete sequel. This is sort of a strange joke, partly because no real movie opens with a trailer for its own sequel, and partly because it’s a reminder that Machete has always worked best as a parody of movie marketing rather than as a movie. It’s the trailer that dreamed it was a feature. But even after two tries, it still hasn’t quite gotten there.