Danny Trejo in 'Machete'
He can't pretend he didn't know a battle was coming. After all, he fired the first shot.

No, not Machete, the blade-wielding, vengeance-minded hero of the action thriller that opens Friday. Rather, the provocateur and co-writer/co-director of 'Machete,' Robert Rodriguez, who has infused his tongue-in-cheek exploitation film with an angry political polemic about immigration policy.

Rodriguez made a point of promoting the film a few months ago with a trailer that called out the state of Arizona for its controversial new immigration-policing law, stoking fears among anti-illegal immigration hardliners that the finished movie would be even more inflammatory than it is. It also prompted the state of Texas to consider withholding filmmaker tax incentives from Rodriguez, a move that could have a devastating impact on movie production in a state that has become a haven for independent filmmaking thanks largely to Rodriguez himself. And it could well stir up an anti-immigrant fervor that could hurt the film at the box office or even impact this fall's Congressional elections. That's a lot of backlash for one little movie full of laughably over-the-top violence and sexuality, but then, Rodriguez and his crew have hardwired outrage into 'Machete,' so they can't be too surprised if it riles people.
Danny Trejo in 'Machete'
He can't pretend he didn't know a battle was coming. After all, he fired the first shot.

No, not Machete, the blade-wielding, vengeance-minded hero of the action thriller that opens Friday. Rather, the provocateur and co-writer/co-director of 'Machete,' Robert Rodriguez, who has infused his tongue-in-cheek exploitation film with an angry political polemic about immigration policy.

Rodriguez made a point of promoting the film a few months ago with a trailer that called out the state of Arizona for its controversial new immigration-policing law, stoking fears among anti-illegal immigration hardliners that the finished movie would be even more inflammatory than it is. It also prompted the state of Texas to consider withholding filmmaker tax incentives from Rodriguez, a move that could have a devastating impact on movie production in a state that has become a haven for independent filmmaking thanks largely to Rodriguez himself. And it could well stir up an anti-immigrant fervor that could hurt the film at the box office or even impact this fall's Congressional elections. That's a lot of backlash for one little movie full of laughably over-the-top violence and sexuality, but then, Rodriguez and his crew have hardwired outrage into 'Machete,' so they can't be too surprised if it riles people.

Machete'Machete,' of course, began as a mock trailer in 'Grindhouse,' Rodriguez' 2007 collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, but anyone who saw that clip and goes to see the film expecting just a Friday night B-movie romp about a limb-lopping antihero is going to find Rodriguez' bloody stew served up with a hefty helping of firebrand politics. (Warning: The next two paragraphs are full of spoilers.)

Machete (Danny Trejo) is an incorruptible Mexican cop who goes up against a druglord named Torrez (Steven Seagal), who kills Machete's wife while he watches helplessly and leaves him for dead. Having escaped across the border, Machete is living as a day laborer in Austin when he's recruited to assassinate John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), a Texas state senator running for re-election on a promise to crack down on illegal immigration. Turns out the assassination plot is a false-flag operation, meant to boost McLaughlin's re-election odds by making him a wounded martyr and Machete an immigrant patsy. The double-crossed Machete uncovers a conspiracy that ties together McLaughlin, a tycoon named Booth (Jeff Fahey), Von (the violent leader of a Minutemen-like militia, played by Don Johnson), and Torrez. Helping Machete are Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who runs a network that helps illegal immigrants cross the border and find jobs, and Sartana (Jessica Alba), an immigration officer who decides to help her own people after she learns of the conspiracy.

The climax is an all-out war between Von's militia and an army of illegal immigrants who'll no longer sit idly and be exploited by criminals like Torrez, businessmen like Booth, or politicians like McLaughlin, much less killed by violent racists like Von.

The movie isn't necessarily arguing for open borders or laxness in law enforcement; nor is it suggesting that current immigration policy is driven entirely by racism (though all the villains in the movie, even Mexican druglord Torrez, are played by white actors). Rather, 'Machete' is saying that powerful interests (business, politics, even organized crime) are depending on illegal immigration (as a source of cheap labor, or as a way to stoke the fears of voters) to boost profits or shore up political power, all the while cynically exploiting illegal immigration as an issue and illegal immigrants themselves as pawns. The carpetbagging senator likens illegal immigrants to terrorists and makes a campaign ad that compares them to maggots and parasites, but the real parasites in the film are the wealthy and powerful who prey on both immigrants fleeing to America and citizens who already live here.

Those subtleties aren't apparent from the two-minute trailer, posted at Ain't It Cool News in May, that begins with Trejo calling the clip a Cinco de Mayo message for Airzona. With that ad, the movie injected itself squarely into the immigration debate recently inflamed by the passage of Arizona's new law that (depending on your point of view) either made it easier for police to crack down on illegal immigration or permitted racial profiling and cynically exploited the racial fears of Arizona voters.

"Illegal" Trailer for 'Machete' (Contains NSFW language and violence)

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There was some initial backlash. The panel at Fox News' late-night show 'Red Eye' took some potshots at the trailer, arguing that the movie fomented disrespect for law enforcement (though that's true of half the action movies made) and that opposition to illegal immigration isn't necessarily racist (not that the movie says it is, but that's a point not clear from the broad caricatures shown in the trailer). FoxNews.com posted an alarmist article about the film ("Violent Movie Declares War on Arizona for Immigration Law," read the headline), which is no longer available to read at the website.

Syndicated radio talk show host Alex Jones (who, like Rodriguez, is based in Austin) claimed to have a final copy of the script and said that 'Machete' aimed to provoke a race war. (Whether or not Jones really did have a script, many of the inflammatory scenes he described do not appear in the final cut of the film.) Jones criticized the Texas Film Commission for allowing Rodriguez to receive grants and tax incentives for the movie, especially after it had denied similar tax breaks to a proposed film called 'Waco,' about the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound, under a Texas law that allows funding to be withheld for film projects that portray the state in an unflattering light.


By last week, Jones had softened his stance regarding taxpayer funding of film incentives, telling the Austin American-Statesman that tax breaks shouldn't be denied to filmmakers on the basis of content, but he was still criticizing 'Machete' as a "hardcore race war film." Nonetheless, film commissioner Bob Hudgins told the American-Statesman that he was still mulling over the prospect of withholding Rodriguez' funding, under the negative-portrayal-of-Texas provision.

Loss of tax breaks and grant money is probably not a big deal for 'Machete,' which cost only an estimated $20 million to make. (The film commission may award a project between 5 and 17.5 percent of its budget, so that's between $1 and $3.5 million.) Even with the extra cost, Rodriguez should easily make back his investment after 20th Century Fox's purchase of the distribution rights and a couple weeks worth of ticket receipts. Pundits are expecting a $15 million opening weekend, though whether the movie's strident politics will repel fans just looking for a fun action movie remains to be seen.

Robert RodriguezStill, a thumbs-down from the commission could have a chilling effect on Texas film production. Rodriguez is, as Hudgins acknowledges, the state's pre-eminent filmmaker, an artist and entrepreneur who has done more than anyone to put Austin on the map as a center for independent filmmaking. He's routinely applied for commission grants for his movies and sailed through the process. If even he can be turned down over content, then who will feel encouraged to apply for incentives to make a film in Texas?

So far, there hasn't been much of a replay of May's condemnation of 'Machete's' immigration politics. As a provocation, it seems tailor-made for Fox News, But the channel's talking heads are sometimes reluctant to criticize products in which the parent company has a large investment, like last winter's 'Avatar,' despite that 20th Century Fox film's pro-environmentalist, anti-corporate, anti-military message.

Rodriguez may even receive some flak from Latinos, since the movie traffics in tongue-in-cheek racial stereotyping even among its heroes. The underground resistance network is run from a taco truck. Machete infiltrates one villain's lair by pretending to be a gardener, and he attacks the bad guy's henchmen with pruning shears and a weed whacker. The illegal immigrants drive to the climactic battle in a fleet of pimped-out, bouncing lowriders.

A cynic might accuse Rodriguez of exploiting the illegal immigration issue for money in his own way, just as 'Machete's' villains do, by injecting fearmongering politics into an otherwise frivolous action spectacle. Then again, exploitation films have always played on contemporary social and political hot-button issues. Zombie movies since 'Night of the Living Dead' have had an embedded social critique (of racism or conformity or consumerism), and monster movies ever since 'Godzilla' have placed blame on corporate greed or rampant technology for creating the monsters in the first place. The biker and drug movies of the 1960s played on both sides of the fence: fear of the counterculture, and fear of a repressive backlash from authority and the "silent majority." The blaxploitation films of the 1970s (the closest analogue to 'Machete') also straddled the fence, playing on African-Americans' resentment over lingering racism and poverty in the post-Civil Rights era and whites' fears about black lawlessness and their own loss of racial privilege.

MacheteThe 'Machete' filmmakers seem to be trying to trying to straddle a fence as well. Defending the film's eligibility for tax incentives, producer Elizabeth Avellan told the American-Statesman that crooked politicians like Robert De Niro's character don't reflect poorly on Texas because every state has them, and that "the way Texas is portrayed is not bad at all; it's actually kind of fun. Texas is cool." Cast member Michelle Rodriguez also says that the movie has political undertones but is really just fun. "The context is relevant, but it's a freaking exploitation film," she told Cinematical. "If anybody tries to say anything about this movie and be taken seriously, like [a] political statement, I would laugh at them."

Having created a protagonist who is both a righteous folk hero and a jokey embodiment of violent excess, Robert Rodriguez is probably laughing, too. He may imagine that he can infuse 'Machete' with politics while keeping it a pulp cartoon good for an evening of cathartic bloodletting and broad guffaws, and that he can walk the movie down that borderline all the way to box office success. But it's a line that's as thin, sharp, and dangerous as the blade of a you-know-what.

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.