With the release of Director Robert Rodriguez’s gritty Mexican-centric film “Machete,” soon to be followed by “Machete Kills,” (trailer here) many film experts are wondering if the success of the movies will become a rallying call for the return of the Mexploitation genre of films. Before filmgoers begin their search for new gems of the Mexploitative genre, it’s important to find out if the question can even be applied to Rodriguez’s new movies. While they have much in common with their exploitative ancestors, a few fundamental differences may separate the movies enough to place them squarely into the typical modern action-movie genre.
Mexploitation films have a distinctive starting point in Mexican cinema that sets them apart from the better-known exploitative genres, such as blackploitation films. The genre that became known as Mexploitation began with wrestler films made in the 1950s and ’60s. These films were cheaply made sci-fi or horror films that featured popular Mexican wrestlers as the stars. In these movies, the wrestlers fought off supernatural menaces, giving audiences opportunities to see more of their favorite luchadores outside of the wrestling rings.
The use of Mexican wrestlers as actors continued until the early ’70s, when a shift in Mexican filmmaking greatly altered the Mexploitation genre. Instead of wrestlers as the leads in the films, the movies were now mainly about women working in clubs, selling their bodies to get ahead. The switch to titillation rather than heroic battle brought the genre closer to other exploitation movie types. As the 1970s continued, considerably fewer wrestlers were included in Mexican films.
The 1980s brought another change to Mexploitation cinema: the inclusion of sex comedy. While not pornographic, these sex comedies were filled with the same level of sexual joking found in other exploitation genres, actually moving the Mexploitation film closer to the mainstream. However, the tales of the downtrodden clubwomen or prostitutes continued unabated, giving viewers a darker look at Mexican society.
It was this darker look that finally took Mexploitation to its final iteration, moving the genre into the realm of action films. The films soon began to concentrate on the seamier side of society, generally concentrating on crime, especially the drug trade and prostitution. For many of these movies, the main star was a known B-movie actor, surrounded by a supporting cast of new actors. The films were quickly and cheaply made, often taking only a matter of weeks to complete. Toward the end of the 1980s, these exploitative films were made to emulate mainstream high-budget movies, but the filmmakers held no pretensions. The idea was to get a watchable movie ready for distribution while spending as little money on the project as possible.
A good example of a Mexploitation action movie is the Robert Rodriguez film “El Mariachi.” In the movie, a stranger arrives in town with a guitar case and a desire to find work as a mariachi. Mistaken for an enemy of the local drug lord, the musician is taken to the drug lord’s home and questioned before being set free. In the meantime, the actual killer looking for vengeance against the drug lord takes the mariachi’s love interest hostage, leading to her death. When the mariachi confronts the drug lord, he is shot in the hand, destroying his ability to play the guitar and leading him to shoot the drug lord dead.
The film “El Mariachi” was made with a budget of only $7,000, but it brought in over $2 million from box offices. Though produced as a typical Mexploitation film, it was instead distributed in the US by a major film company, and its director went on to make such notable films as the “Spy Kids” franchise and “Sin City.” The basics of the exploitation film are still there however, from the low budget to the action-movie trappings.
Rodriguez’s newest “Machete” movies may follow the basic plot and look of a Mexploitation film, but is that enough to brand it as a modern entry into this exploitative genre? The stars are no longer B-list, and the budget is no longer small, but the feel of an old grindhouse movie is still there. These movies portray a visceral enjoyment of the seedier side that was clearly seen in the Mexploitative movies of the 1980s and ’90s. The films also have the same focus on crime and sex. What’s different is that the newer movies are made for much wider audiences, with international box offices in mind. So, while the Mexploitation genre may not be making a strong comeback, elements of it live on, wrapped up in modern action films that still retain a taste of the spectacle of masked wrestlers doing battle against vampires.