Machete

Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (IMDB) offers a strange brew of exploitation movie action sequences and political satire, one that has sent a number of right-wing blogs (see for example John Nolte’s Big Hollywood screed) into an uproar over the film’s depiction of the immigration war.  The stylized, often ludicrous, violence recalls everything from blaxploitation and kung fu movies to spaghetti westerns, with the film’s titular character, played with quiet panache by longtime character actor, Danny Trejo, quietly offing a diverse set of bad guys after he gets mixed up in the ongoing border wars over drug smuggling and illegal immigration.  Like Grindhouse, where the concept for the movie originated in a fake trailer also directed by Rodriguez, the film is an exuberant love letter to B-movies while also eagerly dropping itself in the midst of contemporary politics.

The film opens with Machete working as a police officer in Mexico and refusing to take a bribe from a Mexican drug kingpin (Steven Segall), establishing a revenge subplot that will develop later, before moving to the present day when Machete is hired to assassinate a right-wing state senate candidate (played by Robert DeNiro) campaigning for office on the strength of his stance against illegal immigration–a stance he proves by shooting and killing a pregnant woman as she seeks to cross the border while riding with a militia-style border patrol group.  Without going into too many details, the film depicts a clear alliance between the Mexican drug kingpins and the conservative politicians.  The planned border fence would potentially block people from entering while continuing to allow dealers to slip through.  Meanwhile, Immigration Officer Sartana (Jessica Alba) spends much of her time monitoring a food stand run by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), allowing Rodriguez to show how much our economy depends on the cheap labor done by many immigrants.  Sartana is monitoring Luz because she is rumored to be “She,” the leader of an underground organization of immigrants ready to fight back.

In some ways, as Christopher Campbell points out, Machete offers a mix of “serious issue and stupid action,” and the blunt political allegory is hard to take too seriously.  Although Rodriguez shies away from commenting seriously on the immigration issue by suggesting that serious commentary wouldn’t be “entertaining,” he also hasn’t hesitated to comment from a satirical point of view, as his “Cinco de Mayo” trailer (sending up the new Arizona immigration law) illustrates.  At the same time, the campy action sequences–including the transformation of Luz into a latter-day Che with better abs–make it seem rather silly that the film would be read as inciting a “race war.”  Finally, the film offers enough subplots that it’s hard to see the film as a simple allegory.  How, for example, are we meant to interpret the subplot involving April (Lindsey Lohan), the daughter of conservative political operative Booth (Jeff Fahey) who transforms from a webcam starlet to a machine-gun slinger wearing a nun’s habit? Or the ability of the virtually mute but muscle-bound Machete to seduce virtually every woman he meets (including April and her mom)?  A running gag reminds us that “Machete doesn’t text,” so is this a satire of geeky (but wimpy) guys?  Or just another way to have fun with Machete’s old-school style?

Because I’ve had a stressful week, I was in the mood for some big, dumb fun and Machete definitely fit the bill.  The film’s treatment of the immigration debate, its satire of race-baiting politicians in particular, was pretty amusing, even if it’s difficult to take it very seriously.  Karina Longworth is most certainly right that the film doesn’t really offer a “consistent” political critique, but the film’s sheer enjoyment of B-movie tropes was a lot of fun, and although its critique is far from coherent, Machete is a fascinating “political” text, in part because of its incoherence.

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