AT THE MOVIES - 'Machete Kills' offers shameless gore, not much else

AT THE MOVIES - 'Machete Kills' offers shameless gore, not much else

** 1/2 "Machete Kills"

A $20 million dollar descent into the bowels of self-awareness, writer/director Robert Rodriguez's "Machete Kills" hacks the camp out of his legless cult franchise. Shades of last year's dismal "Piranha 3DD," Rodriguez's sequel to his genuinely well-received 2010 Mexploitation flick "Machete" is a try-hard escapade stained with cartoonish blood squirts and littered with a roster of costumed D-listers. Barely summoning the winky wryness of the faux trailer that spawned the series (inserted into 2007's "Grindhouse," a far savvier take on long-neglected genre flicks) "Machete Kills" is a half-baked, haphazard effort resting on the shoulders of its craggy star, Danny Trejo. Even Trejo can't slash his way out of a satire too enamored with itself to offer anything beyond cheap thrills and gory kills.

And yes, the goofy sequel thrives on a sense of splashy one-upmanship, preposterously executing its bad guys, and outfitting its supporting cast in neon yellow wigs and bullet-firing brasseries. Unfortunately, the punchline runs a bit long, as Trejo attempts to keep the fire of his charismatic main character indefinitely stoked. Or at least long enough to make it to an outlandish threequel. He returns as the mono-syllabic Mexican ex-Federale recruited by a party-hard United States President (Charlie Sheen, following up his cameo appearance in "Scary Movie 5" with yet another self-parody) to prevent revolutionary Mendez (Demian Bichir) from launching a D.C.-aimed missile. Machete accepts his mission, and battles a herd of colorful characters, including a master of disguise (Cuba Gooding Jr. - It's funny because he won an Oscar once!) a femme fatale with a machine gun bra a la "Austin Powers" (Sofia Vergara - Hilarious, considering her ample endowment!) and a psychotic, power-mad egomaniac (Mel Gibson - Get it, because he totally is!) Antonio Banderas, Lady Gaga, and Vanessa Hudgens clog up the conveyor belt of recognizable co-stars, rivaling "Movie 43's" overstuffed ineptitude.

Clumsy casting disasters aside, "Machete Kills" shamelessly flexes it hard-R muscle, and Rodriguez's employment of squirting special effects (and bonus Tom Savini cameo, of course) is sporadically entertaining. The filter-free "Sin City" director knows his way around a well-lit action sequence, but his tongue-in-cheek perspective smothers the commotion, and his green screen explosions are too abruptly cable TV-cued to carry any weight, especially when punctuated by a catch-phrasing co-star. The "Sharknado"-esque presentation belittles any sense of politically-charged resonance the franchise may have previously conjured, downgrading the formerly subversive exploitation genre piece to just a simple action-comedy yucking at its own jokes. An entertaining distraction, no doubt, but lacking aim and a sense of hard-earned rebelliousness. Instead of an exclusive anti-hero, Machete is now a dull brand, outfitted with ridiculous weapons and trotted out like a walking inside joke.

The world does not need another "Machete" movie, but will likely get one anyway, as Rodriguez continues his desperate bid for campy cult-hood, apparently grooming Trejo to be the next Madea. With a stronger message, a less obvious cast, and a smaller budget, Rodriguez can salvage his franchise and launch his star into a more substantial project - going for broke but not breaking his agenda. As is, however, "Machete Kills" leaves the series flat and flavorless, proving that too much self-awareness can lead to total transparency, too much transparency can lead to joylessness, and without joy, what is there to really love about a grizzled assassin tossing a man's intestines into whirling helicopter blades? A tornado of man-eating sharks barreling into various billboards provides about as much substance. If you're into both, then Rodriguez's efforts actually do have a purpose: keeping the business of irony afloat.

Now playing at CinemaWorld, Lincoln, 622 George Washington Highway, 401-333-8676, .