During his 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Herman Cain rhapsodized about the fence he’d build on the U.S.-Mexico border: 20 feet tall with barbed wire, electricity, and a moat. “And I would put those alligators in that moat!” he cheered. For Machete Kills, Robert Rodriguez built that fence but left out the alligators, which means even a movie where Sofia Vergara wears a strap-on crotch gun that she shoots by thrusting her pelvis is less crazy than our national conversation about immigration.
So why not let Rodriguez channel real-life lunacy into this gonzo Mexploitation sequel? Picking up years after renegade blade artist Machete (Danny Trejo) rode off into the sunset with a sexy border agent (Jessica Alba), Kills tops the 2010 original by not giving a mierda about logic or character. Not that these characters aren’t interesting: Mel Gibson plays a precognitive scientist cult leader. It’s just that, if you’re a character in a Machete movie, your lifespan is about as long as it takes to eat a taco. Only a director who knows a lot of hot actresses would be game to kill one off every five minutes as Rodriguez does, starting with Alba in the first scene. (And thank heavens—Alba is lovely to look at, but she seems to grimace when forced to read lines.) And only a director with a posse of super friends would create an assassin like The Chameleon, who rips off his face every time he’s been spotted, a gag that allows the character to be played by everyone Rodriguez knows, including Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Lady Gaga.
However, Rodriguez has stayed loyal to character actor Trejo, who has already murdered for him in From Dusk Till Dawn and Desperado, where he played men named Razor Charlie and Navajas, aka “Knives.” (Herman Cain will adopt an extended Mexican family before Rodriguez names Trejo something less fatal, like Espátula, or “Spatula.”) Trejo’s Machete slices people in half with a sharp zzzhing like he’s the demo man in some fatal infomercial, and he’s so ropy with old, hard tendons that he can’t even be stopped by a hanging. It’s almost overkill when Rodriguez shoves him in an armored vintage muscle car—it’s like making Trejo wear a skin suit of himself.
Trejo has had one of Hollywood’s weirder career arcs. The 69-year-old ex-con and boxer stumbled into acting on the set of an ’80s Eric Roberts movie when the director realized this memorable-looking extra with a 12-inch sombrero-babe tattoo could throw a convincing fake punch. He’s gone from bit player to bit-player-cum-star, his hound dog face dominating the Machete Kills poster while he pays the rent by saying yes to everything—he has 10 films in post-production, and nearly all of them ask him to do the same thing he does here: glower and kill.
What’s funny about Trejo’s typecasting is that he doesn’t even speak Spanish. Listen closely and he sounds as uncertain as a Midwestern grandpa trying to pronounce “chipotle.” Even blonde beauty Amber Heard, here playing a deadly Texas pageant queen, has a better accent. Hell, he doesn’t even like to speak English. The few times Machete is forced to relay convoluted plot details about his mission to disarm a schizophrenic former cartel boss (Demián Bichir, keeping active between Oscar noms) who’s aimed a missile at Washington and wired the trigger to his heart, he looks exasperated with having to talk. “If he die, you die,” he grunts to the president (Charlie Sheen, here credited under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) and hangs up the phone.
Yet all of this adds to the odd enjoyment of watching Trejo power through the movie. His calmness balances out the giddy lunacy Rodriguez chucks at the screen: a literally man-eating hooker (Vergara), an alien ray that zaps Mexican laborers to a space station, and a curiously courageous performance by Gibson, whose quasi-religious inventor compares himself to Noah building the ark and refers to his past mental breakdown as “the Incident.” (Huzzah to the agent who’s encouraged Gibson to spend his apology tour playing lunatics.)
Machete Kills isn’t subtle—with a name like that, how could it be? It’s a live-action cartoon that’s one part Garry Trudeau to two parts bloody Looney Tunes. Rodriguez bends reality like an animation cell until we can only cheer, not complain, that the missile’s 24-hour countdown clock stretches on past two days or that we’re asked to pretend that sticking Machete in a tuxedo and glasses is as convincing a disguise as Bugs Bunny in a Valkyrie bra.
To round out his loco trilogy, Rodriguez has even more ambitious plans for his beloved avenging angel: He’s blasting Machete to space. Which brings us back to Herman Cain, who, in his same electro-gator campaign speech, rallied the crowd by insisting, “We have put a man on the moon; we can build a fence!” OK, but can you build a fence on the moon? ¡Cuidado, Cain! To Machete, your threats sound like dares.