REVIEW: Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 107 minutes
    Release Date: July 7th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Brett Harvey
    Writer(s): Scott Dodds & Brett Harvey

My number was B948.

I’ve always been fascinated by Danny Trejo‘s story because the first thing you discover after seeing him in a movie is that he’s a reformed criminal who served hard time for armed robbery. He went from a stint in San Quentin and pretty much every other prison in the greater Los Angeles region to giggling alongside children on the set of Robert Rodriguez‘s family-friendly adventure Spy Kids. How is that possible? In this America? As a formidable Chicano? You ask anyone and they’ll say it isn’t. They’ll say you’re lying. They’ll say Trejo must not have been “that bad.” And every single one of them will be proven wrong because they’ve been trained to believe it’s not possible. They’ve been trained to believe bad people don’t deserve redemption.

The greater tragedy, however, is that “bad people” often don’t believe it for themselves. Danny’s uncle Gilbert didn’t. Some of his friends didn’t either. And for a time Danny was in that same boat. He talks during Brett Harvey‘s documentary Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo about the existence he embraced on the inside—an alpha nature that his head of security (and reformed criminal himself) Craig Balkam says those who knew of him back then still find themselves consumed by fear when passing by him today. It’s a coldness that made Trejo feel more emotions about losing a hand of dominoes because another inmate was murdered at the table then about the man who took his last breath. He very nearly lost himself forever.

Trejo is a producer on this film and thus could easily have steered Harvey and co-writer Scott Dodds onto a path of sanitization. Many in his shoes probably would have too because most troubled souls would rather run from their past than acknowledge the consequences and use them to better the lives of others. As we see throughout the course of this intimate look back on an almost eighty-year life, however, Danny has gravitated towards the latter path from the moment he stepped back into the world as a free man. From getting clean to becoming a drug counselor to helping out his community of Pacoima, CA any chance he gets, he made a promise to God and himself that he’d never forget who he was.

And if you still think, “Well he must not have been that bad,” just wait until he describes robbing places with a hand grenade he’d pull the pin from to dare victims into blinking first. If he wasn’t “that bad,” screenwriter/actor/reformed criminal Edward Bunker wouldn’t have seen his tattoos on the set of Runaway Train (where Trejo went to help an unnamed man as his NA sponsor) and known exactly who he was. That’s power. That’s infamy. So of course the filmmakers would want him to stay and lend authenticity to a gritty drama about ex-cons. Of course they’d want to use his prowess as a prison-boxing champion to train Eric Roberts. Suddenly everything about him that used to make people run away was making them come closer.

It’s a monumental shift that demands we know the breadth of the chasm bridged courtesy of anecdotes from old neighborhood friends and Trejo himself about the toxic masculinity that drove him, Uncle Gilbert’s influence in hooking him on heroin at twelve and recruiting him for jobs that landed him in jail during his twenties, and the predator mentality that kept him alive behind bars. We need to know about the prayer he spoke when it appeared his life was forfeit and the choice to honor his end of that bargain upon discovering it answered. Such an abrupt reversal in attitude and behavior may sound clichéd, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Sometimes it really does take one person’s unconditional help to want to pay it forward.

To hear his industry friends (Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Donal Logue, and Michelle Rodriguez), his long-time sponsor, and children talk, he’s never stopped doing exactly that. We watch Danny visit prisons to tell his story. We watch him smiling and waving to strangers in Pacoima as he drives by with his windows down. And we watch him inspire everyone he meets. That’s what makes this film meaningful despite its by-the-numbers orchestration: it’s not about how Danny Trejo became a movie star. It’s about how Danny Trejo stood toe-to-toe with his demons and survived to become a man worthy of even the simplest life. Acting is merely his job. It’s the facet of his day-to-day that pays the bills and affords him the ability to remind others they aren’t alone.

The other stuff is the cherry on top that proves to Latinos all over America that they don’t have to be typecast as the villain. Like actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez showed him he could be more than a laborer or criminal, he does the same for today’s generation as a superhero via Machete. Whether or not Trejo has actually paid his debt to society for the ills of his youth isn’t for us to judge anyway. All we can know is that he’s never stopped making amends. Whether giving his children the support he lacked once ego pushed him away from a domineering father to the open arms of a career criminal or handing out toys to children every Christmas, he’s put his Hollywood spoils towards incalculable good.

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