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Machete: The action hero gets political

Severed limbs and a splatter of anti-capitalism. Raph Schlembach watches Machete

February 4, 2011
4 min read

Gruesome and bloody, humanist and anti-capitalist, nihilistic and anti-Christian, feminist and anti-white – all these labels have been used to describe the content of Robert Rodriguez’ latest action movie, Machete. What is true is that Rodriguez and co‑director Ethan Maniquis exploit the action film genre’s potential to its self-mocking extreme in order to pass a remarkably challenging political commentary on illegal Mexican immigration to the US.

There were two trailers that announced Machete, featuring Danny Trejo as renegade action hero. The first describes a one-man vendetta to avenge his murdered family. The second ‘unofficial’ one, released by Rodriguez in response to Arizona’s controversial immigration laws, spells out an entirely different, political plot. Here, Machete leads a revolt against anti-immigration politicians and border vigilantes, helped by an underground network of Mexican immigrant workers (conservative America’s worst fear), and a US border official in high heels.

And this is essentially what Machete is: political commentary dressed up as a sarcastic take on the apolitical, sexist machismo of action hero films. Rodriguez is not slow to start introducing the genre to a healthy dose of self-irony. Five minutes in we’ve already followed Machete, the Mexican Federale cop, driving his car into a criminal hideout, severing the heads and limbs of some dozen men, and rescuing a naked kidnap victim, who promptly turns out to be part of the criminal gang herself, stabs him with his own weapon, and alerts gangster boss Torrez (Steven Seagal) with a mobile phone hidden in her vagina. Overpowered, Machete learns that his police chief is in the gangster’s pay and must witness his wife decapitated in front of his eyes.

Machete, then, is the film’s hero: a (now ex-)Federale, trained to kill and incorruptible, with nothing to lose and an awareness of the political corruption governing the US‑Mexican borderland.

Three years later, while working as a day labourer in Texas, Machete gets hired by Mr Booth, an American businessman, to kill senator John McLaughlin (Robert de Niro). The senator not only espouses anti-Mexican views, he also takes pleasure in partaking in the night-time activities of a heavily armed vigilante group, modelled on the Minutemen, who shoot Mexicans on sight as they cross the border. The businessman puts forward the economic argument for illegal immigration: cheap Mexican labour keeps the country running – ‘The senator must die.’

But Machete has been betrayed. Mr Booth turns out to be the senator’s advisor, hoping to gain sympathy for his re-election campaign if they can foil an attack by an immigrant. Mr Booth’s real arguments are still economic, however. Free supply across borders drives prices down. ‘I hate declining profits.’ Visibly confused, Machete goes on a one-man killing-spree against Texas’s anti-immigration lobby.

Machete has three helpers in his campaign. The first, his brother and ex-partner, has made a lucrative career as a priest and petty criminal. Recordings made in his church’s confession booths bring up enough evidence to implicate Mr Booth and the senator with drug baron Torrez, who seems to finance the anti-Mexican campaign for his own gains.

Then there is the ‘network’, an immigrant self-help organisation that engages in trafficking and finds jobs for new arrivals into Texas. It is loosely orchestrated by ‘she’ (Michelle Rodriguez), a fighter for La Revolución who uses her influence to prepare for an immigrant uprising. Having lost all faith in the corrupted American way of life, she is ready to confront the US authorities by any means necessary: ‘Do you think what you’re doing is right – deporting your brothers and sisters back to their personal hells?’ ‘It’s the law.’ ‘There are many laws.’

Initially, the liberal view of melting-pot America is put forward by immigration and customs official Sartana (Jessica Alba). A Latina who has worked her way up to special agent, she believes in her adopted country’s values: ‘The system works here.’ But working with Machete, she gradually comes to accept that they cannot rely on US state structures to be fair and impartial. ‘There’s the law; and there’s what’s right. I’m gonna do what’s right.’

By the end of the film, Mexican immigrants triumph over the border vigilantes; we find conservative anti‑Mexican politics ridiculed as corrupt; and business appears as the real enemy, manipulating migration for its financial gains. Rodriguez’s most catching line is reserved for agent Sartana. Waking up to the corruption governing immigration policy, she rallies the Mexican day labourers for the final battle: ‘We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us!’ Still with a foot in the system, she can get Machete US papers, but he declines. ‘Where will you go?’ she asks. ‘Everywhere.’

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