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Say hello to Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), the (anti)heroine of Ti West's "MaXXXine," the third installment in his hastily dispatched "X" trilogy.

Last we saw Maxine, she was beating a quick retreat away from a 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 porn 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 stardom when she scores her first mainstream film role, in a horror sequel titled "The Puritan II." No butchered friends, no Night Stalker, no pesky LAPD detectives and no annoying private eye (Kevin Bacon) on her tail. Maxine will not accept a life she does not deserve, and don't you forget it.

Like the previous two films in the trilogy, "MaXXXine" offers writer-director-editor West an opportunity for genre play. If "X" was a grimy '70s slasher, and prequel "Pearl" was a Technicolor musical with ax murdering, "MaXXXine" wears the skin of a sexy, sleazy '80s erotic thriller. But that proves to be only aesthetic: there's neither eroticism nor thrills — it's just a cute costume.

All the audio and visual signifiers are there: a great soundtrack, meticulous production and costume design re-creating '80s Hollywood, lots of stylistic nods to 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 film is too clever by half, but it's not even that clever at all — and there's the rub.

West bonks us over the head with gestures to film history — a Buster Keaton impersonator threatens Maxine in an alley, she stubs out a cigarette on silent film star Theda Bara's Walk of Fame star, Bacon done up in "Chinatown" drag chases her into the set of the house from "Psycho" — but none of these references add up to anything meaningful. They're just increasingly annoying 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? Does that add up? Nope. The Night Stalker murders thrum in the background, devoid of context, an item to read on the nightly news. Maxine's friends do turn up dead, carved with satanic symbols, but like the friends she left behind in Texas, their deaths are seemingly mere speed bumps on her road to stardom. 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 director Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki) delivers Maxine wordy but ultimately meaningless monologues about the philosophy of art and 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 the heroine. 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, depriving her of any real bite.

Only Goth truly understands Maxine, like she understood Pearl, 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, and unfortunately West never lets her off the leash. Goth holds "MaXXXine" together through the sheer force of her charisma, throughout the bumpy plot, her 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 mediated images. It's clear West thought a lot about making a film located in a specific genre that spoke to the power of making the self 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 themes of voyeuristic surveillance in the erotic thriller. But it all becomes just hopelessly muddled.

Ultimately, "MaXXXine" is a lot like the set through which she is chased on the Warner Bros. backlot. A beautiful facade that's empty behind the walls, all surface, meaningless symbols, and not an ounce of substance to be found.


2 stars out of 4

Rated: R for strong violence, gore, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use.

Where: In theaters Friday.