Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo is the story of one of the most prominent character actors of the past three decades. Even if you are not familiar with the name Danny Trejo, his deeply lined face, gravelly voice, and copious amounts of stick and poke tattoos are instantly recognizable. With over 400 onscreen credits his weathered visage has been featured in everything from gory genre fare like The Devil’s Rejects and Machete, to the family-friendly Spy Kids.
While Trejo’s rise from bit player to bankable supporting star is unusual, his journey to Hollywood was even more so, with his actual life story a wilder ride than any of the roles he’s played.
Born to a working class Mexican family, and raised in the Pacoima neighborhood of Los Angeles, young Danny was shuttled between relatives before landing at the home of his biological father, who had previously left the family when Danny was a toddler.
Looking for a place to belong led Danny to his Uncle Gilbert, whose high rolling, live fast and die young criminal lifestyle soon imprinted itself upon the boy. By age 8, Danny was smoking marijuana and by age 12 he was supporting a heroin habit with a string of drug deals and armed robberies. Danny Trejo spent his teens and early twenties in and out of both county jail and an assortment of federal prisons.
A prison riot, a stint in solitary, and an unexpected reprieve from a life sentence finally caused Trejo to change his ways, seek sobriety, and become a drug counselor upon his release from prison. A chance encounter while counseling an actor on set led to his first job as an extra, slowly but surely leading to the career the actor is know for today.
It’s the rare case of a film living up to the hype of truth being stranger than fiction, and Trejo makes for an excellent interview subject. The actor has both an impressive memory for the people and places of his past, and a long time performer’s knack for both narrative and the occasional well-placed one liner. Trejo’s life has all the story beats of inspirational uplift already mapped out, non fiction with all of the twists and turns of a cinematic property based on a novel.
The problem is, both writer Scott Dodds and director Brett Harvey tend to bog down the proceedings with far too much window dressing, be it endless well-lit but unremarkable location shots, or an excess of talking head commentary that adds some additional star power (Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Donal Logue) but little in the way of additional insight.
Nearly one quarter of a 108 minute runtime is spent on an awkward career retrospective full of the early “Inmate #1/Gangbanger#6” thankless roles the title of the documentary is making a somewhat pointed commentary on. While anecdotes about fetching Robert DeNiro coffee or offering to rob a bank for Salma Hayek are charming anecdotes for a talk show appearance, they quickly wear out their welcome here.
That time would have been better spent detailing Danny Trejo’s continued work as a speaker at prisons and rehab centers, his status as a proud cancer survivor, or the five year legal battle he recently won to have his cousin released from prison after 38 years. Instead, all of the above are shoehorned into the last 15 minutes to restore some emotional heft to the proceedings before the credits roll.
Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo does make the case for the remarkable resilience and charisma of its central subject, but invests too much screentime on traditional documentary devices. In all of the idle chatter, the film loses sight of the distinct voice of Danny Trejo, who shines in the moments when the filmmakers relax their narrative grip long enough to let him tell his story in his own words.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Brett Harvey
Writer(s): Scott Dodds, Brett Harvey
Stars: Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Donal Logue, Michelle Rodriguez
Release date: July 7, 2020 (VOD)
Studio/Production Company: Abrupt Films, Universal Pictures
Run Time: 108 Minutes