LOS ANGELES - Robert Rodriguez's "Machete Kills" is a sequel based on an end-credits joke from a film that was itself based on a joke trailer contained within a half-joke grindhouse homage. Exactly how many degrees such an endeavor is removed from anything resembling serious cinema would require Jean Baudrillard to calculate, yet for more immediate filmgoing purposes, all there is to see here is a surprisingly long-lived gag finally running out of gas. As violent as its predecessor yet noticeably duller and less outrageous, "Machete Kills" is dragged to the finish line entirely by its director's madcap energy and an absurd cast of major stars in strange cameos.
Since emerging as a DIY hero in the 1990s, Rodriguez has always been an inherently likable figure on the indie scene. At his best, he can tap into the most delightfully stupid adolescent fantasies and infuse them with a sort of earnestness that almost verges on sweetness - for example, casting Rose McGowan as a stripper with an M4 carbine for a leg in "Planet Terror." At his worst, however, Rodriguez's fantasies seem taken straight from the kind of adolescent who spends an inordinate amount of time with the school psychologist - for example, casting Sofia Vergara as a bloodthirsty madam who once ate her father's genitals and strides into battle with a machine-gun bra and strap-on dildo shotgun that fires when she thrusts her hips. Here serving as a characteristic one-man crew, Rodriguez leans heavily toward the latter mode.
Reprising his unexpectedly career-defining role as the monosyllabic, mononymic Machete, Danny Trejo once again proves to be a master of granite-faced deadpan. Machete's character motivations have hardly developed beyond getting the girl and killing the bad guys, yet he suffers a tragedy in the film's opening reel and is offered something of a chance at redemption, as well as American citizenship, from the president of the United States (Charlie Sheen, here credited under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) in exchange for his services. Crazed Mexican revolutionary Marcos Mendoza (Demian Bichir) plans to fire a nuclear missile at Washington, and Machete is tasked with stopping him, placed under the care of a handler (Amber Heard) hiding in plain sight as Miss San Antonio.
"You know Mexico. Hell, you are Mexico," the president tells Machete, a line that would surely spark a cross-border war were it spoken by a real-life U.S. leader. Machete proceeds to effortlessly infiltrate Mendoza's Acapulco compound, where he discovers that not only does the onetime drug lord suffer from multiple personalities, he also has the missile launch device implanted in his heart. Thus Machete must fight his way back across the border with Mendoza as his captive to find the bomb's American creator, the Bond-villainous weapons dealer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson).
While the first "Machete" was a far more complete film than this, it ran into trouble whenever it became convinced it had actual satirical points about race and immigration to make; marrying slapstick cartoon ultraviolence with, say, the genuinely upsetting sight of a pregnant migrant being gunned down requires a complexity of wit that Rodriguez has never remotely exhibited. "Machete Kills" aims for nothing more complex than sheer sanguinary lunacy, though it nonetheless contains far fewer original ideas: Heads are heedlessly lopped off, intestines are once again used as rope, the phrase "Machete don't . " is repeated three times, and a sex scene between Trejo and Heard ends with a meta-gag cribbed straight from Quentin Tarantino's half of "Grindhouse."
The film draws most of its charm from the obvious fun its supporting cast appears to have had on set, and Rodriguez has little trouble holding audience interest when he can simply introduce a new outrageous character every five minutes or so. Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba reprise their roles from the original; Walt Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas and Lady Gaga all make good with their respective turns as assassins; and "Spy Kids" alumna Alexa Vega finally completes her maturation from child star to ludicrously pneumatic sexpot.
Yet the spotlight remains trained on the film's pair of troubled middle-aged thesps, grasping the career-rehab lifeline that Rodriguez extended to Lindsay Lohan the last time out. Sheen gets a chance to yet again have fun with his sullied reputation - his POTUS pounds tequila in the Oval Office, lights his cigarettes with a butane torch and receives red-telephone calls in the midst of a menage a quatre - while Gibson does another round of penance as a wild-eyed religious fundamentalist.
"Machete Kills," an Open Road release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong bloody violence throughout, language and some sexual content." Running time: 107 minutes.