An undocumented Mexican immigrant puts aside his gardening tools, picks up an AK-47, and goes on a killing spree. This is not a fever dream of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. It’s the revenge fantasy Machete, the new Robert Rodriguez movie that takes America’s panic over its southern border—the jitters that historian Ricardo Romo once called a “Brown Scare”—and runs wild with it.
Machete is the first summer blockbuster of the immigration crisis—“Mexploitation,” in Rodriguez’s coinage. In its jolly exploitation of ethnic tension, it is the spiritual compadre of seventies blaxploitation movies like Super Fly and Foxy Brown. Here, the “illegal,” Machete, played by Danny Trejo, finds himself trapped between Mexican drug lords who would murder him in the south and American politicians who would deport him in the north. Both will have to pay. When I asked Trejo to describe his alter ego, he answered, “A badass.” Then he repeated it slowly for emphasis. “A baaad-assss.”
The men want to build an electric fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, a proposal similar to one floated by Rand Paul.
To understand just how transgressive Machete is, and what it’s trying to say, you’ve got to understand its origins. The movie took shape way back in 1995. Rodriguez wrote a script that imagined Trejo, his thuggish muse in Desperado and Spy Kids, as a Mexican Charles Bronson. For his 2007 movie Grindhouse, Rodriguez took a few bits of the Machete script and filmed a gag trailer, complete with a grandiose voiceover (“They just fucked with the wrong Mexican…”). The joke was that a Latino superhero would never see the screen. Yet when fans saw the trailer, they encouraged Rodriguez to push further into the surreal world. “They could tell there was a real movie beneath it,” Rodriguez said.
In the movie, Machete, an ex-Mexican federale, watches his wife get beheaded by a drug lord. After illegally crossing into Texas, he finds himself at odds with a politician (Robert De Niro) who calls immigration “an overt act of terrorism.” It’s an election year. Some of this may sound vaguely familiar if you read the paper. “My crystal ball was set back 15 years,” Rodriguez said ruefully. By the time he started shooting, the news from the border and Washington had become as lurid as his script.
The end result is a satire, sort of. You chuckle when it’s revealed that evil forces want to build an electric fence along the border. But Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul’s platform included a similar proposal, and a Republican U.S. House candidate from New Mexico suggested putting land mines along the border. Machete’s newscasts report that a would-be assassin “may have been of Mexican descent”; this is reminiscent of the reports this spring about the still-unsolved murder of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz. It’s no wonder that, in May, Rodriguez released another gag trailer cheekily suggesting Machete was a direct response to Arizona’s S.B. 1070. A B-movie student appreciates nothing more than when the headlines advertise the film.
Border movies tend to be dark, sardonic affairs. “All border towns bring out the worst in a country,” Charlton Heston, an unlikely Mexican knight, declared in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The border was a rat-infested sewer pipe in Gregory Nava’s El Norte; it was the fault line beneath a Texas town in Lone Star. The year after Ronald Reagan signed an immigration reform bill, Cheech Marin—seen in Machete playing a priest and wielding a shotgun—directed Born in East L.A., in which a Hispanic Los Angeleno is accidentally deported to Tijuana.
“I wrote this other movie,” Marin told me, “in which it assumes that Mexico is the number-one power in the world, and that everyone wants to get in there.” This time, the gringos migrate south. “It’s like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. ‘How come they got so much and we've got so little?’”
Rodriguez’s politics are more subtle. Since his debut feature El Mariachi, his most radical political act has been to fill his movies top to bottom with Hispanic and Mexican and Spanish actors. Rodriguez has put a new face on the genre movie, if not the American dream: notice his Antonio Banderas-led family in Spy Kids. But even that message is buried under booming visual effects and camera tricks.
“He’s not going to write some socially-conscious, politically articulate thing,” Marin said. “He’s going to make Machete.”
So what does Machete tell us? Rodriguez said in an interview that while he’s in favor of immigration reform, immigration is merely the movie’s MacGuffin. The real theme is cross-border corruption, from the Mexican drug gangs to the American gun-runners and drug buyers who support them.
That’s a fair point, but I fear it’s lost in a bloody arterial spray. The theme that comes through loud and clear is immigrant empowerment. The undocumented immigrant often has been portrayed in the American press as one of two extremes: a helpless victim or a sinister criminal. Machete begins with the latter stereotype, a canny move, since this year has seen immigration warriors publish dark fantasies in which Mexicans occupy Texas ranches or dump beheaded bodies in the Arizona desert. (The latter comes from the governor of Arizona herself.) The message of Mexploitation seems to be that if the villainous Brown Scare stereotype can’t be expunged, the immigrant should be reclaimed and redeployed. It should, well, be a badass.
If Machete can’t change hearts and minds, then the pantheon of Hispanic cinema at least has a new name on the marquee.
“This goes all the way to Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, the first Mexican actor that really started getting some roles,” Danny Trejo told me. “He worked with John Wayne. I think of him anytime I do a role.”
Trejo cited Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya, known for his turn as a bandit in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and his heavily-accented tagline: “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”
“Those are the guys that laid it out for us,” Trejo said. He switched to his booming Machete voice, as if to indicate a change of management. “Now, we got an action hero!”
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.