Danny Trejo is, somehow, something of an enigma. Instantly recognisable and with a catalogue spanning over three hundred films, he’s become a near-ubiquitous screen presence over the last three decades.
Fans of genre cinema will recognise him from Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, yet he’s also appeared in the family action Spy Kids series, the 2009 buddy-com Fanboys and Laurie Collyer’s addiction-drama Sherrybaby. Some viewers may just know him as That Guy From The Old El Paso Adverts.
Yet for the diversity of his portfolio, the characters played by Danny rarely stray too far from his stock-in-trade: grizzled Mexican hard-men for whom intimidation and violence are a way of life. This is a role which is perfect for him as a performer, and usually works perfectly wherever it’s deployed. It’s common knowledge the actor has a chequered past, but Trejo can’t be too ‘challenging to work with’, or he surely wouldn’t be as busy as he is.
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Doing his very best to unravel this mystery is writer/director Brett Harvey with his fourth feature, Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo. The 108-minute film charts the life of its subject through carefully paced interviews with the man himself, his children Danny Jr, Danielle and Gilbert, sister Dyhan, and a swathe of friends and colleagues including Robert Rodriguez, Michelle Rodriguez and Cheech Marin.
With interwoven clips from five separate, intimate conversations, Brett Harvey has unparalleled access to Trejo and the range of archival family photographs on display demonstrates the seriousness of commitment from both parties. Inmate #1 is beautifully shot and meticulously assembled in both its interviews and interstitial framing (Harvey is also the director of photography here), with a warmth and calm which ultimately reflects where Trejo has found himself.
Danny’s misdemeanours and ensuing prison-time started early and formed a long period of his life; this is reflected in them occupying the first half of the film. The second skims over the highlights of Trejo’s screen career (understandable, given its breadth). Both are handled with equal care and reverence.
In fact, the highly polished presentation of the opening minutes sends the subliminal yet unmistakable message that there will be no unpleasant surprises here. No matter how grim the charted history becomes, there’s the feeling that this is the approved version of events if not quite a sanitised one.
Danny isn’t proud of his past but he’s very upfront about his mistakes, and this works to his credit. Inmate #1 doesn’t glorify or excuse his transgressions, but neither does it challenge the viewer’s preconceptions over someone it’s already assured them is A Great Guy. Even in his more candid confessions, Danny seems to be playing the part of “Danny Trejo™”. He no longer has the need to prove himself, and the anecdotes and reminiscences feel very well-honed.
Brett Harvey is to be commended for the project he’s assembled, although it’s more a cinematic biography than a documentary proper. The storytelling (broad and intricate) comes from its star rather than its director and feels slightly unsatisfying given the actual drama contained within. A detached, objective approach would have made for a more interesting film, but much of its texture would be missing without Danny’s insight.
At the core of his rehabilitation is Trejo’s desire to help people. From his post-prison role as a drug counsellor after completing the 12-Step program, to the community work he still undertakes in his hometown of Pacoima, Los Angeles, to the talks he regularly gives in schools, colleges and prisons, the actor focuses on making the world a better place. Not in an effort to atone for old sins, more because it’s just the right thing to do. This is the aspect of Inmate #1 which shines most brightly, where Trejo’s commentary is the most valuable asset. Whether this should take almost two hours to convey is another matter.
At the end of Inmate #1, the viewer knows more facts about the actor although his enigma remains intact, which feels entirely intentional. Because ultimately, Danny Trejo is an executive producer of this film about Danny Trejo, and it shows.
Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo is available on digital download from 22nd June 2020.