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Revenge of the B-Movie

by Published on
photo courtesy Fox Studios
Danny Trejo in Machete

Last month, the Texas Film Commission informed Texas director Robert Rodriguez that his blood-soaked comedy Machete would not be receiving state incentive funds, despite earlier indications that it would. Apparently the commission had buckled to a right-wing email campaign claiming Machete was “nothing less than an attack on conservative Americans who oppose illegal immigration” and a “racist bloodbath.” The commission denied the application under a bizarre clause in the incentives statute that prevents money from going to films that feature “inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion.” 

Rodriguez’s movie, recently released on DVD, follows a righteous former Mexican federale nicknamed Machete, played by the imposing, pockmarked Danny Trejo. Machete is mistaken for a day laborer by an aide to an anti-immigrant U.S. senator from Texas (Robert De Niro). This senator is so anti-immigrant, in fact, he secretly hunts and kills just-arrived “illegals” in the desert with an all-white border militia. The aide offers Machete a large sum to shoot the senator—saying Texas needs cheap illegal labor to maintain its economy—but then double-crosses Machete in an elaborate plot to gain sympathy for the senator and his anti-immigration platform. Down but not out, the knife-wielding Machete goes on a 90-minute, outlandish bloody rampage—slicing, dicing, decapitating, and disemboweling the men who set him up and the xenophobic power structure they represent. Along the way, Rodriguez finds an excuse to have Lindsay Lohan, dressed in a nun’s habit, shoot De Niro, which—let’s be honest—is probably reason enough to see the movie.

Oh yeah: The Texas senator, policy aide, and border guard are all in bed with a Mexican drug lord played by Steven Seagal.

Does all that qualify Machete as inappropriate content portraying Texas or Texans in a negative fashion? Probably. But as one character in the movie says, “There’s the law and there’s what’s right,” and what’s right in this case is for the Texas Film Commission to lighten up and recognize that Machete is a mindless exploitation film, a ham-fisted satire, an absurd, over-the-top, gore-filled firebomb set off in the middle of a national debate on immigration reform. The movie lacks any subtlety or self-seriousness. Sure it’s a bloodbath, but it’s not a racist bloodbath. Racism is something that occurs between human beings; Rodriguez is only interested in comic-book characters. 

Machete is both sensationalistic schlock and social critique, an excuse to show scantily clad women slicing bad guys in half with samurai swords and an exuberant middle finger to white America’s racially tinged neuroses. It’s worthy of Texas’ tax dollars. Good or bad, Machete is a blend all its own that has inspired the kind of xenophobic hysteria and reactionary censorship that more artful satires could only ever dream of.

I watched the DVD of Machete shortly after the bureaucrats at the Film Commission condemned it. That helped me appreciate the film much more than I otherwise would have, or should have. Sure, the film is plagued by sloppy editing, lowbrow violence, lousy acting, and one-dimensional characters. But what difference does that make when those characters put the fear of God into the hearts of right-wing alarmists? Surely the best way to appreciate a scene with hundreds of armed illegal immigrants driving through the streets of Austin in bouncing, bejeweled low-riders is to imagine that Rodriguez has captured Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s worst nightmare on film for all the world to see.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.