Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo
"Inmate #1 is an embarrassment of riches."

He's the celebrated star of Machete and a man with over 300 film credits to his name, but Danny Trejo's early life was very different. Growing up in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley, a district where he still lives today, he idolised his small time gangster uncle and wanted the same glamorous lifestyle for himself, robbing local stores and selling drugs and doing everything he could to make money. By the age of 12 he was addicted to heroin and in due course he ended up in prison, where he quickly learned to be tough to survive, not only becoming a boxing champion but developing a reputation that made him notorious within the system. How did somebody like this turn into a man who dresses up as Santa each December and goes around handing out presents to strangers, a man who rescues children from crashed cars? Brett Harvey's documentary isn't so much a rags to riches Hollywood story as the story of one man's decision to turn his life around.

Opening with a scene of Trejo visiting a prison to talk to the inmates, something he still does on a frequent basis, Inmate #1 is an embarrassment of riches - there is simply so much to Trejo's story that if one simply threw it all at the screen, something entertaining would be sure to stick. At times Harvey seems a little overwhelmed by this surfeit of material. The film is overlong and some of the stories it presents, whilst intriguing in themselves, are really too similar for their inclusion to be justified. There's also a bit of a tendency to gush, with Harvey perhaps overwhelmed by his subject's personality and by the naturally sentimental character of some parts of the story, but if you can look beyond this, you'll find a story that's every bit as dynamic as those the actor has helped to tell during his screen career.

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Acting was something of an accident for Trejo, whose first question was "What does it pay?" In a sequence presenting some of his many screen deaths (with occasionally horrified comment by his children, who started watching them very young) he reflects that he doesn't really mind what people do to him onscreen because viewers can watch him suffer and then they can watch him go to the bank. Buoyed up throughout by his rich sense of humour, the film is packed with great stories from the mischief and mayhem of his early days and his experiences on film sets, balanced by the occasional grim tale from inside.

There are contributions here from several of Trejo's longstanding friends, including Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez and Donal Logue - all skilled storytellers. Salma Hayek reveals that he expressed his undying devotion to her the first time they met, ripping off his shirt to reveal his tattoo and declaring that he knew her from his dreams, whilst Robert Rodriguez discusses their onscreen collaborations (regarding which Trejo himself is just excited to have been the first man to kill Steven Seagal onscreen). Family members also weigh in and Trejo's relationship with his younger cousin, who ended up spending 38 years in prison, serves to highlight the way his life could have gone.

Trejo fans will find a great deal to enjoy here and the film also offers an insight into aspects of the film industry that don't get much coverage, going back to his days as an extra and bit part actor. Despite the lapses into sentiment, people facing their own struggles to stay clean and sober are likely to find it inspiring because there is no doubt that Trejo has walked the walk and he addresses the subject in a manner refreshingly free of bullshit. As an actor who never had to try to look tough but, rather, had to learn to look more approachable so that he didn't scare directors and producers, he has a very different take on film from others who have played similar roles. The film reflects on how his career has opened up more opportunities for Mexicans in the industry, and it's a reminder that, beyond the glamour and noise, that industry is comprised of human beings.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2020
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Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo packshot
Having spent much of his early life in prison, actor Danny Trejo discusses his career and how he has overcome a life of crime and addiction.

Director: Brett Harvey

Writer: Scott Dodds, Brett Harvey

Starring: Cheech Marin, Craig Balkam, Michelle Rodriguez, Jhonnie Harris, Donal Logue, Robert Rodriguez, Gilbert Trejo

Year: 2019

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: Canada

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