Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo

 

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An actor's story that is quite unlike any other.

 
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo

Danny Trejo

 

My rating here may be slightly on the kind side given that this is one of those documentaries in which the filmmaker lingers for too long towards the close seemingly reluctant to bring things to an end. But that is not a major flaw and what we have here is a pleasingly unusual biopic, one that gives the actor Danny Trejo what could be considered his best role ever: himself. The title of Brett Harvey's film is itself an indication of the extraordinary life that Trejo has led. Born in 1944, his first twenty-five years seemed to offer the sad but not unfamiliar story of a youth who, growing up in an area where crime flourished (in his case in Los Angeles) and lacking parental guidance, understandably latched on to an unfortunate role model. For Danny it was his uncle Gilbert, well-off but a gangster, who provided the model. This led him to take up boxing with some success, but it also introduced him to drugs and to participation in robberies which resulted in eleven years spent in and out of jail, most notably in San Quentin. That he became a tough prisoner and one who could be violent is hardly surprising, but by the time that he obtained his release in 1969 the way in which he saw the world had totally changed.

 

Unlike most jail inmates, Danny Trejo came to see that criminality and attachment to drink and drugs led to a life without promise of any kind and he acted on this insight to turn his life around and to help others to do the same. To this end he would journey across America as a drug counsellor, but then he became attached to the world of cinema, first of all as a mere extra. However, due to his past history and to his tough exterior image unaltered by his change of heart, it was realised that he could be called on to advise on authentic portrayals of prison life and indeed to appear on screen himself in menacing roles that made a certain impact even when he had no dialogue.

 

Today it is still the case that Danny Trejo's chief claim to cinematic fame is probably the sheer number of his screen appearances (they exceed 400) and it might have been thought that appearing in Heat in 1995 would be his career peak since thereafter he could claim to have been killed by Robert De Niro. But, in fact, 2010 saw him get the title role in Machete, no longer playing an expendable heavy but a decidedly Mexican action hero. That certainly brought him greater prominence as an actor but his acting remains less important than the other pursuit that is central to his life. Harvey's documentary, having devoted its first half to Trejo's criminal past, does go on to describe his film career in some detail, but it does not end there. Quite rightly the last section is centred on the extent to which Trejo continues to give talks both in prisons and in schools often addressing youngsters. He does it well because for him it has the same charge that he brings to this film in which Harvey places the man himself firmly screen centre. He comes across as a man who loves to talk about himself because he revels in being in the limelight and takes to it like a born performer. But at the same time quite crucially he speaks from the heart so that his exhortations to live a good life seem more than mere platitudes. Those in need of his advice might indeed take it because, as this film shows, Trejo's own evolvement is proof that change is possible and that a hopeless life can with determination be transformed. No less than his talks, this movie is a platform for his message.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Rodriguez, Jhonnie Harris, Craig Balkam, Donal Logue, Cheech Marin, Max Martinez, Danielle Trejo, Gilbert Trejo, Danny Trejo Jr.

 

Dir Brett Harvey, Pro Rocky Mudaliar and Adam Scorgie, Screenplay Scott Dodds and Brett Harvey, Ph Brett Harvey, Art Dir Derek Heisler, Ed Stephen Green, Music Alec Harrison.

 

Abrupt Films/Score G Production Films-Universal Pictures.
108 mins. Canada. 2019. Rel: 22 June 2020. Available on VOD. Cert. 15.