There's the strong silent type, and then there's the strong mute type. In Robert Rodriguez's Machete Kills, journeyman tough-guy Danny Trejo skews toward the latter. If the recurring catchphrase in these films is "Machete don't ____" — as in, Machete don't text, Machete don't tweet, Machete don't die — the fact is that what Machete mostly don't do is speak.
At times, to be blunt, he comes off like a silent film star who's accidentally lumbered onto the set of a bloody, violent, thoroughly ridiculous talkie: reluctant to speak, sometimes a little confused by his surroundings.
He may be right to feel that way. The fact that Machete Kills even exists is the latest in an unlikely series of events that started with a jokey fake trailer in the 2007 double feature Grindhouse, from Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino; somehow the Machete films have become a franchise venture, making a leading man out of a guy who might otherwise have spent a career playing the snarling background heavy.
2010's Machete bucked the odds and managed to successfully re-create, at feature length, all the things that made that compact 2-minute ersatz trailer such fun. It worked both as a genuinely admiring homage to its grimy '70s vengeance-cinema roots and as a funny, self-aware recognition of that genre's inherent amateurish excesses. It even managed to work in some bluntly effective political commentary on immigration policy.
Sadly, Machete Kills proves that there's a limit to how thin the concept can be stretched. That limit is somewhere around the point where Charlie Sheen — playing the smoking, swearing, assault-rifle toting President of the United States — makes a joke playing into the "winning" meme he spawned in real life. The whole thing collapses, thereupon, into a heap of winking self-reference.
Sheen isn't the only bad-press-plagued celebrity a-gnawing at the scenery here, either. Mel Gibson steps in as villain Luther Voz, right-wing survivalist, military-industrial profiteer and smug one-percenter. Instead of a bunker stocked with canned goods and guns, he's got a whole space station meant to accommodate a privileged few should the nuclear gambit he's attempting to engineer on Earth come to fruition.
(Mexican laborers are being kidnapped to perform the station's menial functions — about the only significant remnant of the first film's political agenda.)
Averting nuclear winter is a big step up in assignments for Machete, the ex-Federale who last time around was tasked merely with foiling political scheming and a bit of personal vengeance. But this is a sequel, and everything has to be bigger and badder and bloodier. Even Machete's signature weapon has been souped up; now it comes in both an electrical model and a completely impractical triple-pronged switchblade version.
There's still a measure of fun to be had here, to be sure — Rodriguez looks for ever more creative ways for Machete to kill, beyond the standard beheadings and lengthwise bodily bisections, and there's a gag with a helicopter rotor that's truly inspired. And the revolving cast of actors filing extended cameos as the shape-shifting "El Camaleon" is, admittedly, an often hilarious touch.
But where the first film reflected its simple roots by not reaching for too much, here it too often feels like Rodriguez is trying too hard to impress. It's as if, after getting by on pure charm on the first date, he showed up for the second armed with flowers, chocolates, a teddy bear and a ring. It's just too much — and the excess is compounded by the need for digital effects without the budget to make them even slightly convincing.
The best moments in Machete Kills are the simple ones, like a playful jab at our expectations of gratuitous sex: It's there, but Rodriguez serves it up with a clever means of obscuring it. Also great is the trailer — of course it all comes back to a trailer — for the proposed third installment, Machete Kills Again ... In Space. But we might be better off if Rodriguez took a cue from his protagonist's less-is-more reticence, and let that one just remain a trailer.