The odds are you’ve seen Danny Trejo in something. From Art Sanella in Death Wish 4, to Razor Charlie in From Dusk Till Dawn; from Spy Kids to Sherrybaby; from dangerous Chulo to genius inventor; Trejo has been in a wide variety of movies, crashing through the barrier of typecasting that would be typical for men of his circumstance, to become a prolific and successful actor in Hollywood.
It wasn’t always this way for Trejo, whose real-life story could warrant a Hollywood biopic all its own. Raised in the tough Pacoima neighbourhood of California, Trejo began his teen years addicted to heroin. Under the wing of his uncle Gilbert – whom he clearly adored and looked up to, and who’s spectre haunts this movie throughout – Trejo robbed various stores to support his habit and ended up bouncing from prison to prison throughout his life. While in prison he took up boxing, becoming a top prizefighter and earning a reputation as someone you didn’t cross, and obtained a wealth of tattoos, including a significant chest piece that would play a major role in his Hollywood career.
When released from prison – and having narrowly avoided a potential death sentence – he was determined to clean up his act. He went to AA, got straight, and found work first as a drug counsellor, then as a coach, and then as an extra on movie sets to earn income. It was on one of these movie sets that he was first noticed as a tattooed tough guy by the director and given a role as a boxer, befitting his own history. On that same set he met Eddie Bunker, another former criminal turned Hollywood actor and began his journey from roles with names like Inmate #1 and Gangbanger #1 to first on the call sheet for Robert Rodriguez‘ Machete, which cemented his status.
Stranger Than Fiction
There is a wealth of information available to director Brett Harvey for this documentary, Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo, and to his credit, he manages to squeeze most of it in. He mostly relies on a series of talking heads from likes of Trejo himself (who is a warm, amiable presence on screen, clearly adept at telling his life story and relishing every moment) to his sons and daughter; from friends and former inmates such as Craig Balkan (who became a bodyguard to the rich and famous and has his own tough-guy persona) to movie star colleagues such as Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, and Donal Logue. They’ve all got their own stories to tell of Trejo and Harvey wisely allows the space for these stories to breathe, giving the feeling of being told a story by a group of people together, to paint as big a picture as possible, and it is here that the documentary really shines.
When he began robbing stores, a drugged-up Trejo would walk up to the counter with a grenade in his hand and threaten to release it if he wasn’t given money. When he first met Salma Hayek on the set of From Dusk Till Dawn he ripped open his shirt, displayed his prominent chest tattoo (which features a woman in a sombrero), and told her he’d gotten it for her. As a way of saving his sanity during solitary confinement, Trejo acted out – line for line – the entirety of The Wizard of Oz inside a cell smeared with fecal matter. It’s these stories, hilariously told by Trejo, that really bring this alive and add a nice counterpoint to the often harrowing facts that sometimes are overlooked here.
It’s during the first half of Inmate #1 that we get insight into the world that Trejo grew up in. Driving around his old neighbourhood, Trejo gives us a tour of the spots where he gained his infamy as a troublemaker. There is vast potential for social commentary here, as well as a point to make about the systemic failures of the American justice system, but it mostly goes unanswered.
“In my neighbourhood you could either be a labourer or a criminal’,” Trejo says at one point. “You didn’t see a lot of Mexican doctors or lawyers”. In interviews with his friends and family, we’re painted a picture of how bleak and dire Trejo‘s situation was as a child, and it’s an unspoken fact that he was one of the lucky ones. For every success story like his, there are hundreds of children who will grow up institutionalised in the prison system. It is frustrating to see Harvey flirt with these ideas and then quickly drop them. For a documentary with an almost two-hour run time, you feel there could have been a little more scope for this kind of investigation at the beginning.
That’s not to say the truth of Trejo‘s childhood isn’t handled well. In fact, throughout it is handled sombrely and with the gravitas it deserves. The moments of poignancy (a harrowing story Trejo tells about his uncle teaching him how to inject heroin when he was only eight years old; finding out his mother died when he was on the set of Muppets Most Wanted and breaking down when the actor playing Kermit held the frog out to him and, in character, said “I’m really sorry about your mom”) are handled deftly and allowed space to properly impact. So, too, is the moment when Trejo returns to prison to deliver a speech about drugs to a room full of inmates. It is powerful and emotional and underscores the journey Trejo has made from drug-addled child to prizefighting inmate to Hollywood star.
It is simply incredible and, frankly, a miracle that he made it that far and to witness it through the lens of Trejo‘s recollections, alongside those of his friends and family, gives the viewer a sense of intimacy. We get to know who Trejo is; the kind of person he was – unabashedly warts and all – to the kind of person he is now, and how his journey changed him. There is joviality in Trejo throughout the stories, but his easy laughs and smiles belie a deeper struggle. Harvey manages to capture some of these moments extremely well; a glance to the side after Trejo tells a story, eyes welling up slightly; a few seconds pause during the telling of another, gathering the strength to continue.
It all adds up to a detailed portrait of the man which lends the final act of the documentary a feel-good atmosphere as we see how he has used his star power to help transform his neighbourhood of Pacoima (where he still lives) to the extent they paint a mural of him on a wall he admits he probably vandalised as a teenager. It’s important that the audience has that sense because the final third of Inmate #1 feels a little indulgent.
It runs overlong and hammers home the same message that Trejo is beloved by his community again and again. While it’s an important moment in the story, the pacing slows to a crawl at this point and there’s a sense that Harvey is just filling for time. It’s hard not to feel as though some of that extra time could have been used to focus on the social issues which make Trejo‘s childhood sadly quite commonplace in that part of America, especially for a minority.
Inmate #1 benefits from the charisma and likeability of its star. Trejo‘s infectious laughter and grace give momentum to this documentary and Brett Harvey deftly moves from Trejo to others to fill out stories and give a bigger picture. It is a startling, utterly moving success story that will have you smiling from ear to ear by the end of it.
It’s not without its flaws – there could have been much more focus on the social issues which Trejo grew up in, and a better investigation of racism and systemic abuse of the justice system (which would be timely right now) – but when it focuses on Danny Trejo‘s incredible story and allows him to tell it his way, Inmate #1 is a powerful and poignant story with a fairy tale ending that will have you believing miracles really do come true.
Danny Trejo is a prolific actor, appearing in hundreds of movies and TV shows. What’s your favourite? Let us know in the comments!
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo will be available on VOD and Digital from July 7th. You can find more information about where to watch it by clicking here.
Watch Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo
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