'Machete' Trailer Takes a Smart Slash at Arizona's Immigration Law

Machete movie trailer
Machete movie trailer

In the two short weeks since Arizona's controversial immigration law passed, protesters and supporters across the country have offered a flood of outraged sputtering and frenzied spinning. But of all the law's critics, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez may be the most eloquent, employing a strategy perhaps best described as, "If you can't beat them, make a buck off them."

On May 5, the Mexican-American filmmaker responded to the law by releasing an "illegal" trailer for his highly anticipated immigrant revenge-fantasy flick, Machete. The short film, originally produced for Ain't It Cool News, opens with actor Danny Trejo angrily squinting into the camera, saying, "This is Machete with a special Cinco de Mayo message to Arizona." It then proceeds to offer a shoot-em-up bloodbath that highlights the rest of the cast, including Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan and Robert DeNiro.

Awkward Position

Machete first appeared as a playful trailer in Grindhouse, a 2007 paean to exploitation cinema that Rodriguez co-directed with Quentin Tarantino. Soon after Grindhouse's theatrical release, Rodriguez announced plans to make Machete into a full-length film. Another Grindhouse trailer, Hobo With a Shotgun, is also being made into a movie and will be released later this year.

Machete appears tailor-made for the current political climate. Trejo plays Machete Cortez, a Mexican day laborer who's hired to assassinate a Texas senator. The lawmaker, played by Robert De Niro, is sponsoring legislation that would send illegal immigrants back to Mexico, but the would-be assassin discovers that he's been set up when he's shot by one of the senator's henchmen. Ultimately, Machete gathers an army of illegal immigrants and hunts down the men who attacked him.

Although filming was completed last year, Machete won't be released until September, putting Rodriguez in a somewhat awkward position -- while his film predates the legislation, its fall release could make it seem like he's crudely exploiting Arizona's law. If he followed a normal release cycle, the film's trailers wouldn't come out until later this summer. On the other hand, an earlier trailer would quell claims of exploitation, though it could also create fatigue among moviegoers, who might lose interest by the time the film comes out.

Choosing Viral Channels

In some ways, Rodriguez's predicament is comparable to The China Syndrome, the 1979 film about a nuclear-power plant meltdown. Released 12 days before the Three Mile Island partial core meltdown, the movie was popular with audiences who wanted to gain a better understanding of the disaster. But Columbia Pictures, which released the film, worried that it might seem to be exploiting Three Mile Island. According to AMC, the studio pulled the film from many theaters.

Rodriguez's decision to put out an "illegal" trailer neatly shortcuts the China Syndrome dilemma. The Cinco de Mayo greeting offers a solid nod to Mexican American culture: In the U.S., May 5 is the most popular Mexican cultural holiday, eclipsing Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16. By releasing his trailer on that date, Rodriguez simultaneously tipped his hat to Mexican-American culture and drew attention to his flick.

The second smart move lay in Rodriguez's decision to release the trailer through nontraditional channels. By going with Ain't It Cool News, he guaranteed that the film's growth would occur virally, slowly building as the trailer percolated through various fan sites. While it remains to be seen if the director can maintain interest in Machete for the next four months, it's clear that Rodriguez has huge audiences -- as well as Arizona politicians -- in his sights.