Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 7th, 2020
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo (Brett Harvey, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
You may know Danny Trejo from his appearances in many (over 300!) films since 1985, in roles large and small, starting with Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train through subsequent work in Desperado, Heat, Con Air, Spy Kids (and its sequels), Sherrybaby and, in what has since become his most iconic role, Machete (and its sequel, Machete Kills). He also played the ill-fated Tortuga, on AMC’s Breaking Bad, who ends up with his decapitated head on a tortoise crossing the desert (just one of the countless, macabre ways in which his on-screen incarnations have expired). With his muscular physique, scarred face and evocative tattoos, including one that covers his entire torso, Trejo is instantly recognizable, even to those who may not remember his name. Now in his mid-70s, he has, like all human beings, a unique past, though unlike most of his fellow Hollywoodians, one that might well have left him dead or in prison for life. In the new documentary Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo, from director Brett Harvey (Ice Guardians), we learn all about the man, both the bad and the good, and how he emerged from his violent youth to become a responsible citizen and role model.
It’s a tale as inspiring as his cinematic deaths are gruesome. Born and raised into a poor, if hard-working family of Mexican immigrants in Pacoima, California (where he still lives, today), he found himself shuttled between his grandmother’s and grandfather’s homes, early on, the former a haven, the latter a place of machismo and resentment. Taking to one of his uncles, Gilbert, a charismatic ne’er-do-well who led the young Danny very much astray, first getting him hooked on heroin and then inducting him into a life of increasingly dangerous crime, Trejo set himself on a path that inevitably led to prison. With stints in both San Quentin and Folsom, among other rough penitentiaries, he seemed destined for a recurring series of ever-longer sentences, especially when, during a prison riot, he threw a brick at a guard. But the worst did not happen, and upon his release in 1969, he saw the light, entered a 12-step program, and began helping, rather than robbing, his neighbors, soon becoming a sought-after drug counselor and motivational speaker.
And that’s where the moral of the story lies: do good deeds and the world around you gets better. 15 years after beginning that new chapter of his life, it was while counseling a recovering addict on a movie set (Runaway Train) – who needed the help, given the narcotic temptations (i.e, cocaine) in such places – that he was recognized by the screenwriter, Eddie Bunker, who himself was a former convict. Trejo had been a boxing champion, many years running, while in the state system, and with that chest tattoo was hard to miss. So Bunker convinced Konchalovsky that his prison drama needed someone like Trejo to give it verisimilitude. And just like that, Trejo was on his way to a brand new, and very lucrative, career.
Filled with interviews with family, friends and colleagues, with Trejo front and center, the movie offers a complex portrait of a multidimensional man who has never ceased to give back since he found his purpose. A movie star he may be, but he still speaks to addicts and prisoners, and remains close to his roots, so as not to forget where he came from. Though Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo (the title coming from the generic names his early screen characters were given) is ultimately a fairly conventional biopic, in terms of approach (and could be slightly shorter, with less inspirational music on its soundtrack), breaking little new aesthetic ground, its subject is anything but ordinary. It’s the ultimate redemption tale, writ large. Machete kills it, indeed.