Most critics have come to more or less the same conclusion about Robert Rodriguez's new film, Machete. With few exceptions, the movie has been received as a directorially accomplished and modestly enjoyable comic-book revenge fantasy -- easy to look at, easy to laugh at, and easy to forget. There is, of course, a contemporary twist. Critics also invariably note the ultraviolent operetta's cartoonish pro-immigrant politics, in which virtuous Mexican day laborers struggle against and defeat villainous drug lords and murderous Anglo border vigilantes.
More gore-ality than morality tale, the film essentially does for the border what Rodriguez's friend Quentin Tarantino did for the Third Reich in Inglourious Basterds. Which is to say, he turns it into a vehicle for guts-splattered slapstick mixed with fact and fancy, heavy on the fancy. It is an argument for comprehensive immigration reform by way of Tromaville. A film in which a man swings down the side of a building using another man's intestines as a rope, as Danny Trejo's title character does, is not taking itself very seriously. Nor, say critics, should it invite audiences to do so. "The only viewers ["Machete"] is likely to upset are the same kind of people who once claimed that the purple Tinky Winky in 'Teletubbies' promoted a gay agenda," wrote Stephen Holder of The New York Times. Or, as Machete costar Michelle Rodriguez told Cinematical, "It's a freaking exploitation film. If anybody tries to take [it] seriously, [as a] political statement, I would laugh at them."
Rodriguez has been laughing for over a week now, because since the film's release on Sept. 3, some usual suspects have concluded that Tinky Winky is now part of the Aztlan plot. For the more outraged conservative critics of Machete, the spectacle of America's first Latino action hero laying waste to cartoon rednecks the way John Rambo once laid waste to cartoon commies is too much to bear. For them, Machete is a harbinger of race war, if not the geographical disintegration of the country itself. "The Reconquista is here -- at a theater near you," wrote FoxNews.com contributor James Pinkerton, referring a nativist conspiracy theory about Mexico plotting to "reconquer" the American Southwest that is also known as the Plan de Aztlan. Richard Spencer, a former American Conservative editor who now edits AlternativeRight.com, sniffed that the movie was "a catalogue of depraved and predictably left-wing outrages" whose only message is "Kill Whitey! Kill Whitey! Kill Whitey!"
AlternativeRight.com is a project of VDARE.com, the nativist hate site named after the first English child born in the New World, Virginia Dare. VDARE's own in-house film critic, Alexander Hart, wrote in a similar vein that the film purveyed an "anti-white, anti-American, treasonous agenda" offering "patriotic Americans an honest look of how Hollywood really sees us." (Hollywood, in this case, is the Rupert Murdoch-owned Twentieth Century Fox.)
Slightly to the right of VDARE is the openly white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, which likewise describes "Machete as an "anti-white snuff film." In a public show of opposition to Rodriguez's widescreen affront, the Indiana chapter of the CCC last week protested the film's opening at a Regal Galaxy Cinema in downtown Indianapolis. American Border Patrol, another hate group, encouraged similar protests by publishing a map identifying the locations of theaters playing the film near L.A.'s MacArthur Park, where violent protests erupted this week following the fatal shooting of a Guatemalan immigrant named Manual Jamines by an LAPD officer on Sunday.
According to William Gheen of ALIPAC (Americans for Legal Immigration), the recent MacArthur Park protests should be seen in light of the release of "Machete." "The latest illegal alien fueled riots in Los Angeles began three days after MACHETE was released nationally, depicting an army of illegals violently rising up against American oppressors," Gheen wrote in a Thursday letter to ALIPAC supporters. "Having a movie like Robert Rodriguez's MACHETE showing in over 3,000 movie theaters in America, we must be on guard for possible massive civil unrest. If the unrest in Los Angeles continues or spreads, ALIPAC will publicly demand that MACHETE be withdrawn from theaters."
Gheen goes on to decry the fact that a planned remake of the '80s conservative cult classic "Red Dawn"--"a movie about Americans defending our homeland from invasion by communist forces"--has been cancelled. "Does everyone understand what is happening here?" asks Gheen.
No critic on the right has taken such sustained offense to the grindhouse gringo-gore of "Machete" as John Nolte, Andrew Breitbart's editor at BigHollywood.com. (Breitbart is the Obama-bashing propagandist who recently released a severely edited video that falsely suggested Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was an anti-white racist.) Nolte has devoted more than a dozen articles to the film since its controversial trailer was released last spring, in which star Danny Trejo made a threatening reference to Arizona over its SB 1070 immigration law targeting undocumented immigrants. In his review last week, Nolte described the film as "racist and anti-American." Far from the madcap Mexploitation film described by professional critics, Nolte argued that "Machete" is "a call for revolution; [a call] to wage war against a cruel America."
Brietbart's former employer Matt Drudge appears to agree. On Sept. 6, "The Drudge Report" linked to an article on Alex Jones's conspiracy site PrisonPlanet.com entitled, "'Machete' producers lied about racist bloodbath." The article, which also contains a video of Jones discussing the film, describes "Machete" as an "anti-Texas, pro-immigration psy-op" carried out by "the big foundations" that want to "keep us at each other's throats."
"Now Hollywood's exports aren't just American cultural hegemony," writes Jones, "but a weaponized-subsection of radicalized Latino culture that draws in crowds by playing to Hispanic supremacy." Jones also interprets the heavy use of machetes in the film as showing the hand of "the System" in propagating an "anti-gun message."
That Jones could find an "anti-gun" message in "Machete" illustrates the degree to which his paranoia is the driving force shaping his increasingly popular worldview. Despite the film's taste for machetes and gardening tools used as weapons, there is no shortage of good old-fashioned gun porn. The title character, to pick just one example, enters the final scene flying slow-mo through the air on a motorcycle topped with a high-caliber machine gun.
Only when Trejo lands do the machetes come out. It is this battle royal that follows, in the campy climax of "Machete," that most angers the film's conservative critics. It is not hard to see why. It is the most provocative pro-immigrant set piece since the gleeful mass border-run orchestrated by Cheech Marin at the end of the 1987 comedy "Born in East L.A." (Marin appears in "Machete" as a pot-smoking priest.) For 15 minutes, "Machete" indulges in no-holds barred undocumented catharsis in broad daylight: Mexican day laborers confronting and disemboweling the Anglo border vigilantes that once hunted them in the desert for sport. The Mexicans win handily and raise their machetes in victory.
Those who sympathize with the work done by border groups like the Minutemen will naturally not be pleased with this. Ditto the film's depiction of border-activists not as concerned law-abiding patriots, but as cold-blooded racist killers. "Welcome to America," says Don Johnson's vigilante sheriff character, modeled partly on Arizona's Joe Arpaio, after shooting a pregnant Mexican in the desert.
But however unfair to law-abiding border-watchers "Machete" may be, it is no call for race war. Neither marauding Mexicans nor white gangs spend the film hunting down random members of their opposite number in back streets and alleyways. The violence centers on the border and its related drug trade; the two sides clearly represent not races, but competing if caricatured visions of immigration policy. Nor are the use of stereotypes anything new, especially in the action and exploitation genres. Flip the script of "Machete," and you have any number of television shows and films from recent decades in which white heroes like Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone mow down faceless Asian, black and Latino gangsters, commies and terrorists. Nor are these films ancient history. In the opening scene of this year's action throwback "The Expendables," a gang of evil Africans is shredded by a white-majority band of heroes in the very first scene. And let's not even get into the silence with which the conservative figures quoted above greeted the depiction of Jews in Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," a film completely lacking in the hipster tongue-in-cheek self-awareness with which "Machete" drips.
Despite the heated cries of outraged conservatives, Robert Rodriguez has not done anything all that interesting, new or threatening in his latest film. He has merely pulled some old Hollywood conventions inside out for a new era. Hard though it may be for some to accept, "Machete" is a quintessentially American twenty-first century night at the movies--a "Revenge of the Nerd Gardeners" with border vigilantes as the college jocks. For those who can take this for what it is, the result is nothing more than a couple of hours of mindless fun. For everyone else, "Red Dawn" can usually be found somewhere on cable.