How Machete Got to the Screen
Thursday, September 2, 2010
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando looks at the new film "Machete" and its star Danny Trejo.
Most films get a trailer AFTER they have been completed but "Machete" (opening September 3 throughout San Diego) began as a faux trailer at the beginning of "Grindhouse."
When Robert Rodriguez cast Danny Trejo in “Desperado” in 1995, he initially saw what everyone else in Hollywood saw – a thug. The muscled, long-haired, and tattooed Trejo had already appeared in dozens of films playing mostly killers and criminals. But once Rodriguez starting shooting with the actor on “Desperado,” he saw something else.
ROBERT RODRIGUEZ: He had this iconic face, this iconic look, and this was before he was a star, before people knew who he was, and it has not changed. People everywhere just flock to Danny when they see him. So I always wanted that on the big screen.
But it would take fifteen years to achieve that goal. During that time Rodriguez began planning a film called “Machete” with Danny Trejo in the lead. But before they could make that film a reality they had a little fun with the character. In 2001, Rodriguez cast Trejo as a character named Machete but it was in the family flick, “Spy Kids.” In that film Trejo's Machete was the clever and inventive uncle the kids seek out for help. This wasn’t quite the character Rodriguez and Trejo had in mind for their feature film but it was at least moving Trejo away from his stereotyped bad guy roles.
Then in 2007, “Grindhouse” (the double feature by Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino) started with a faux trailer for a film called “Machete.”
Now Rodriguez and Trejo were getting somewhere. The trailer was a hit and fans wanted to see more of the ex-Federale who wanted revenge on the men who double-crossed him. "Machete" was designed to look like a 70s B-action film, mixing genre conventions with pop culture politics. It played off the low budgets and hot button social issues of blaxploitation films and of action flicks like “Billy Jack.” Those films delivered on formula conventions of sex and violence but also snuck in messages about racial issues and the need for change.
20th Century Fox
Rodriguez saw “Machete” in the same light. So as his feature film got closer to becoming a reality, Rodriguez released a special Cinco de Mayo trailer for with a very particular audience in mind.
That trailer got Fox News and talk radio hosts like Alex Jones worried about the stereotypes the film was presenting.
ALEX JONES: White people are evil demons they deserve to die, they are all racists and armies of Hispanics have to hack up the gringos with machetes and that’s the Latin American symbol of peasant uprising.
Such media buzz could have only pleased the director since all Rodriguez was doing was turning stereotypes around. He had suffered through many Hollywood films depicting Latino characters as maids, cooks, or worse. Now he was creating one of the rare Latino action heroes. Plus he was happy to exploit white characters as the one-dimensional supporting characters.
20th Century Fox
Take Robert De Niro’s bigoted politician on the campaign trail.
SENATOR McLAUGHLIN: “Change that’s what they want. Change the laws. Open the doors. Red rover, red rover send the terrorists right over…”
Rodriguez pulls off his political commentary with sly humor and an affection for genre conventions.
Take this line delivered by Jessica Alba suddenly reconnected with her ethnic roots for her role as an immigration officer who rediscovers with her people.
SARTANA: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
She’s a sexy lady but a mediocre actress and that totally fits with the 70s action tradition. Casting is key to “Machete’s” success starting with character actor and frequent heavy Trejo finally stepping up to a starring role. His typecasting by Hollywood gives his role an added edge. Everyone in the film underestimates Machete, dismissing him as some mere Mexican day laborer just as Hollywood has underestimated Trejo, relegating him to supporting roles and villains. But in “Machete,” he’s both the star and the hero. And at the end of the film he's like a B-movie Tom Joad (Henry Fonda's character in "The Grapes of Wrath") promising "to be there" for all those downtrodden people who might need his help.
20th Century Fox
So Trejo’s triumph in the film is like an act of rebellion that mirrors that of his character. And Rodriguez is smart enough to understand that film and pop culture can sometimes be powerful influences that work in very different ways from more mainstream and conventional channels. So here’s to “Machete,” a sly act of cinematic rebellion that challenges both how Hollywood makes films and how audiences react to them.
Companion viewing: "Billy Jack," "Coffy," "Grindhouse," "The Grapes of Wrath"