The unlikely politics of Robert Rodriguez's 'Machete'

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Robert Rodriguez didn't intend to make a statement about immigration. It just worked out that way.

When the controversy over the Arizona immigration law bubbled up several months ago, the director re-cut a version of the trailer for "Machete," his hybrid thriller/action/exploitation picture, to protest the law.

"It's kind of funny because it's not really what the movie is about, and I didn't want people to think that it was," Rodriguez said Thursday night from Comic-con. "I just felt like I had to say something about it so I cut that trailer. There's so much grandstanding and those of us who live near a border know how unsolvable the issue really is."

Rodriguez was speaking from a giant party-cum-exhibition in downtown San Diego, where Fox had taken over a huge empty lot and set up dozens of low-rider cars, an outdoor screen and a taco truck to promote the Mexican American auteur's latest film. (All the elements figure into the film.)

Though "Machete" indeed features a grandstanding politician in the form of Robert DeNiro, it also tells a broader story about a mythic ex-federale (the tough-guy character actor Danny Trejo), a taco truck operator ( Michelle Rodriguez) and an assortment of other colorful types, some played by equally colorful personalities, including Don Johnson and Lindsay Lohan.

Rodriguez, who co-directed the film with Ethan Maniquis, developed the movie from a fake trailer embedded in "Grindhouse," the exploitation double bill he directed with Quentin Tarantino, adding characters and plot elements as he went. "It started with this short fake trailer, but before I knew it it had evolved into this hydra," Rodriguez said. "By the time it was all done I felt like each character could almost be a movie unto itself." (Read more on Rodriguez at sister blog Ministry of Gossip.)

Stars Rodriguez and Trejo turned out too, and, in keeping with his tough-guy image, Trejo sounded a direct note about border policy. Stepping out from a phalanx of bodyguards, the mustachioed actor told Hero Complex, "If you're a politician and you need to go after the issue, that's fine. That's what politicians do. But if you don't care and you're just grandstanding then ... you."

He then went on to talk how people were starting to pick up on the character portions of the film. "I leave my house and people scream out 'Machete.' A guy in England came up to me and he had a giant tattoo of Machete -- on his back."

But as much as Rodriguez has broadened the movie to include a host of genre elements (there are violent priests and quirky druglords, too) political issues somehow keep finding him. At Thursday's event, a giant fence surrounded the lot, creating a series of haves and have-nots for those who wanted to watch the footage. Rodriguez made a joke about it from the stage, and later shrugged in an interview. "A fence!" he said. "How weird is that as I'm showing footage and there's actually a fence?"

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