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Review: A killer Mia Goth returns in 'MaXXXine,' a flimsy thriller that doesn't deserve her

Say hello to Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), the antihero of Ti West’s “MaXXXine,” the third installment in his hastily dispatched “X” trilogy. Last we saw Maxine, in 2022’s “X,” she was speeding away from a late-’70s-set Texas porn-star massacre, leaving a trail of bloody carnage in her wake. It’s now six years later, in 1985 Los Angeles, and Maxine, an industrious starlet and peep-show performer, is determined to transcend her trashy, traumatic origins to become a capital S star of the silver screen, no matter what it takes.

Maxine won’t let anything get in the way of her rise after she scores her first mainstream film role in a horror sequel titled “The Puritan II.” It’s her big shot and nothing’s going to stop her: no butchered friends, no city-terrorizing “Night Stalker,” no pesky LAPD detectives and no annoying private eye (Kevin Bacon) on her tail. Maxine, as she often tells herself like a mantra, will not accept a life she does not deserve, and don’t you forget it.

Like “X” and its prequel “Pearl,”, “MaXXXine” offers writer-director-editor West an opportunity for genre play. If “X” was a grimy slasher and “Pearl” was a Technicolor melodrama with ax-killing, “MaXXXine” wears the skin of a sexy, sleazy ’80s erotic thriller. But that proves to be only its aesthetic: There’s neither eroticism nor thrills here, just a cute costume.

All the audio and visual signifiers are there: a great soundtrack of period-appropriate needle drops (including ZZ Top and Ratt), meticulous production and costume design re-creating ’80s Hollywood, lots of stylistic nods to Italy’s leather-gloved giallo films and the filmography of Brian De Palma. But West doesn’t wield these references with any intent, and in fact, there are far too many. The movie is too clever by half, but it’s not even that clever at all.

West bonks us over the head with gestures to film history — a Buster Keaton impersonator threatens Maxine in an alley; Bacon, done up in “Chinatown” drag, chases her on a studio backlot and up the stairs of the house from “Psycho” — but none of these nods adds up to anything meaningful. They’re just increasingly sharp elbow jabs to the ribs. When Maxine stomps Buster’s genitalia, it becomes clear that it’s all just a cheap joke, a cinematic pun engineered for movie nerds but rendered without a lick of suspense or tension.

And what of the murder mystery? The Night Stalker murders thrum in the background, devoid of context, an item to hear about on the nightly news. Maxine’s colleagues do turn up dead, carved with Satanic symbols, but like the ones she left behind in Texas, their deaths are seemingly mere speed bumps on her road to success. It’s not entirely clear why she views the LAPD detectives (Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale) with hostility, except that they’re making her late for her first day on set of “The Puritan II,” where icy British director Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki) delivers to Maxine wordy but ultimately meaningless monologues about the philosophy of art and the industry.

Like these talky speeches, West packs “MaXXXine” with familiar quotes, images and truisms that gesture toward “Hollywood commentary,” but there’s no actual comment. He manages to say nothing at all and is unwilling to indict his leading lady, thereby undercutting her power. Ruthlessly ambitious Maxine is far more interesting when we conceive of her as the villain in this story, not its savior. West indicates her true nature with an opening quote from Bette Davis: “In this business, until you’re known as a monster, you’re not a star.” But he consistently waffles on that premise, depriving Maxine — and “MaXXXine” — of any real bite.

Only Goth truly understands her character, as she understood Pearl (who she embodied both as an elderly killer and a budding young murderess), and she plays the porn star with a heart of coal like the ferocious, hard-scrabbling striver she is. When Maxine is bad, Goth is very good; unfortunately, West never lets her off the leash. Goth holds “MaXXXine” together through the sheer force of her charisma, despite the bumpy plot, an underwritten character and the plodding, perfunctory kills that arrive like clockwork.

It’s disappointing, because “X” was a fascinating piece about locating one’s own desire and self-actualization through making movies. It was smart and sly, and there was so much promise in this thesis, which was further explored on a character level in “Pearl” and which could have been built upon in “MaXXXine” through the idea of voyeurism in the erotic thriller. But it all becomes hopelessly muddled.

Ultimately, “MaXXXine” is a lot like the set through which she is chased on the studio backlot: a beautiful facade that’s empty behind the walls — all surface, meaningless symbols and not an ounce of substance to be found.

Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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