How 'Machete' inflames immigration debate


In Robert Rodriguez's new grindhouse feature "Machete," the vengeful title character uses vicious cutlery to butcher his enemies. Could something similar happen to the movie when it's released next week?

"Machete's" convoluted story explicitly takes place amid the current powder keg of an immigration debate and on the heels of Arizona's controversial anti-illegal immigration legislation. Crooked politicians, powerful drug kingpins, malicious border vigilantes, antsy day laborers, conflicted customs agents and angry revolutionaries seethe along the U.S.-Mexico border in Rodriguez's film. In real life, confusion and violence have peppered both sides of the line.

"It feels like this movie couldn't have come at a more perfect time," Rodriguez said, "even though we came up with it a long time ago."

This first stab at Mexploitation, about a former federale who gets mixed up in a messy conspiracy on the U.S. side of the border, could become a political pinata. This could be a good thing or a bad thing for the movie, but the film's star, Mexican-American Danny Trejo, thinks people will be surprised.

"I think Arizona is going to like this movie," said the man who is Machete. "It doesn't just deal with the guy who comes over the border to support his family; it deals with the corruption on both sides -- the drug dealers, the guys who are getting paid to bring people here and the politicians who, any time they need a good platform, choose immigration. So the feds may now really do something."

The first thing they might do is complain about the movie, which already has kicked up some dust. After Arizona's SB 1070 was signed into law in April, Rodriguez fired the first salvo when he pushed out a recut trailer on Cinco de Mayo that took aim at the state. A tacked-on introduction showed Trejo in character saying, "This is Machete with a special Cinco de Mayo message ... to Arizona." Mayhem, including shots of angry illegal immigrants rising up in rebellion, followed.

FoxNews.com wasted no time in posting an article, "Violent Movie Declares War on Arizona for Immigration Law," that linked the trailer to an incident the day before in which an unidentified white powder was sent to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who had signed SB 1070 into law. The article, which was quickly removed from the FoxNews website, declared the trailer "just the latest development in a debate that is growing more rancorous by the minute."

"When the first trailer came out, there was a stir," said Shannon McGauley, president of the Texas Minutemen, self-appointed immigration-law enforcers. "People were saying, 'They're making fun of us.' It had its desired effect -- it had some shock appeal." (Check out the trailer below.)

Writers on other sites, some of whom had seen the trailer and read the screenplay, took up criticizing the film as "racially inflammatory" and as "glorifying a race war." The seeds of this interpretation are not hard to see.

Among "Machete's" more provocative elements are border vigilantes led by Don Johnson as a kind of avatar for Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio and fake political ads for an incumbent senator whose platform is built on his "hard line against wetbacks" and a description of them as "parasites." That the two characters murder a pregnant Mexican woman to prevent her baby from being born in America and then shoot her distraught husband while uttering the line, "Welcome to America," underlines the point.



As over-the-top as the movie is, Rodriguez and his co-writer cousin, Alvaro Rodriguez, load the script with such call-to-arms lines as "We didn't cross the border -- the border crossed us!" and "The system is broken. So we built our own." The senator played by Robert De Niro barks at a campaign stop, "Make no mistake, we are at war."

At the same time, the movie has fun with cultural cliches attached to Chicano culture. Characters make verbal references to pinatas, cucarachas, papers, deportation and burritos. A fight played for laughs includes Machete wielding a weedwhacker, hedge clippers and other gardening tools. An underground network for illegal immigrants is headquartered in a taco truck.

But it also is suffused with Mexican pride. When Machete is offered a cigar with the simple, "Cuban?" he responds: "No. Mexican." Viewers at L.A.'s rowdy Orpheum Theatre screening Wednesday night roared with approval. (And it's no coincidence that all of the villains in the film are white.)

As a sign of things to come, that downtown Los Angeles premiere was attended by a large quotient of brown-skinned fans, some of whom showed up in low riders and wearing "Legalize Arizona" T-shirts. In addition to Johnson, Latino cast members Jessica Alba (half-Mexican), Michelle Rodriguez (Dominican/Puerto Rican), Cheech Marin (Mexican) and the 66-year-old star, Trejo (Mexican) -- not to mention a five-piece mariachi band -- greeted the audience from the Orpheum stage.

That this same area has been the site of numerous immigration reform-related rallies and skirmishes the past four years was not lost on the filmmakers.

Fox certainly knew what it was taking on and actually bid for the right to distribute the film. Its difficulty in trying to figure out how to market the pic likely has less to do with its immigration content than with the fact that it's a low-budget B-movie without superheroes. (It also has enough nudity, profanity and gore per minute of screen time to make a primetime TV commercial impossible.)

Although this type of controversy might have hurt a movie like "Avatar" -- a movie made for hundreds of millions of dollars that News Corp. properties pointedly refrained from criticizing -- a dust-up could help bring "Machete" to a much wider audience. Referring to the earlier Fox News-related attack, Rodriguez smiled and (half-)jokingly said: "I think they do that on purpose. When you see the movie, you'll see there's a lot of that sort of double dealing going on throughout."

Rodriguez is referring to the duplicitous subtext that "Machete" highlights, that all of the surface conflict is just a cynical smokescreen for a goal both sides of the border can agree on: higher profits from drug imports. But in the movie business, it's not too far-fetched to suggest that a company could generate controversy to make money.

One elegantly simple statistic shows the potential here: Nearly 13 million young Latinos (ages 12-34) are considered frequent moviegoers. Awareness remains low on "Machete" a week out from release, but that's an enormous pool to draw from if awareness shoots up in the wake of public outcry -- especially if it's to defend a movie where Latinos are the heroes.

Whether Fox would fan the flames, Rodriguez noted that the potential political minefield has been a hallmark of the exploitation genre from its inception.

"That's what they would exist for," he said. "As soon as there was an event or an issue, they'd run and make a movie about it and then say, 'Ripped from today's headlines!' "

"Machete" could soon become part of those headlines as dozens of other states consider hard-line measures similar to Arizona's. So the potential for impact on the national stage is not insignificant, even for a jokey, low-budget flick like "Machete." ("Syriana," this is not.)

Dozens of movies and TV series have been caught up in the madness of the moment -- from "Cruising" and "The Passion of the Christ" to "Dogma," "The Sopranos" and "Thelma & Louise" -- but the controversy did little if anything to boost revenue. "Machete," which Fox releases nationally Sept. 3 after a special screening Wednesday at the Venice Film Festival, is slicing into theaters amid midterm election campaigns and an ever-radicalized national debate.

Whether it irks good ol' 'Merican patriots, Latino-American groups, the right-wing talking-head brigade or just plain everyone, the upshot could support the movie in theaters.

"I think the movie is someone's personal agenda," McGauley said. "But it seems interesting. If you don't have a sense of humor, no matter what side you're on, it probably makes you a boring person. I imagine that a lot of people who complained will be the first ones to buy a ticket."

Gregg Kilday contributed to this report.
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