[Review] ‘INMATE #1’ recounts Danny Trejo’s hard life, Hollywood introduction

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO

Not Rated, 108 minutes 
Directors: Brett Harvey
Featuring: Danny Trejo, Donal Logue, Michelle Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Robert Rodriguez, Craig Balkam, Danny Trejo Jr., Danielle Trejo, Gilbert Trejo, Gloria Hinojosa, and Jhonnie Harris

Danny Trejo should be dead. That’s not hyperbole, though his face gives the impression that he’s not long for this world. Creased and pockmarked, heavy eye bags, and looking so worn, you basically assume that his last rights are about to be read. 

As he explains in the documentary INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO, he was serving a prison sentence at the infamous San Quentin prison, and a small riot broke out. He and a group of guys were throwing rocks at each other in the yard. Trejo accidentally hit a corrections officer and was taken to solitary along with the others. He made a silent plea to the Man Upstairs. Later, the officer couldn’t identify the prisoner who threw the rock, and no one came forward to claim Trejo did. That reprieve was the wake-up call he needed to change his life drastically. 

Clearly not dead, Danny Trejo affords us many anecdotes like this one in Brett Harvey’s compelling documentary. Since everyone has a story to tell – and with the truth always being stranger than fiction – Trejo proves to be quite the character recounting his birth and upbringing in Pacoima, a low-income, Mexican-American neighborhood of Los Angeles. A little hellion whose father primed him to idolize John Wayne at an early age, it would be his Uncle Gilbert that would dramatically shape his future. 

From hellraising to heroin use, Trejo’s life of armed robbery, drug abuse, and prison stints, is what we see in his weathered appearance. We don’t see (and what Harvey explores) how this fearsome-looking man with a stare that could strike a man dead at one hundred yards changed his ways and turned to drug counseling before becoming one of Hollywood’s unlikeliest character actors. That’s a character actor in the broadest sense of the phrase because he’s not concerned with being typecast. 

Danny Trejo being interviewed in ‘INMATE #1.’ Courtesy photo.

Even the documentary’s title acknowledges the hard truth from showing up on set all tatted up. Before his breakout appearance in DESPERADO as a knife-wielding assassin (with his signature chest tattoo of a lady wearing a sombrero) who never spoke a word, Trejo was usually credited as “Prisoner,” “2nd Inmate,” or “Tattoo Artist.” Though, his brush with Hollywood was a total fluke. 

He found himself in an abandoned factory (used as an interior set for the 1985 thriller RUNAWAY TRAIN). It had been converted to look like a prison. Someone asked him if he wanted to be extra. “An extra what?” Trejo responded. Soon after that, one of the screenwriters on set, ex-con Eddie Bunker (“Mr. Blue” in RESERVOIR DOGS), recognized Trejo from San Quentin and remembered he was the prison’s boxing champ. So, in a short span, Danny Trejo goes from extra to teaching star Eric Roberts how to box. Bringing an aura of authenticity to the picture (“You don’t know this about me, but these prison blues hang just right,” Trejo told filmmaker Andrey Konchalovskiy), this former prison inmate got paid to be, well, himself.      

As he recalls his journey from the barrio to the big screen, interspersed between his jaunts around Pacoima are interviews from those who know him best. We hear from family members, co-stars that consider him a close friend, and even his security head, Craig Balkam. That’s correct. The guy who looks like the guy you don’t want to meet in a dark alley needs a little protection.  

We also see him speaking at recovery meetings and groups of prisoners. Danny Trejo’s recollections of his time spent behind bars paint a vivid portrait of a life hardened by crime and punishment. After release, his sobriety offers hope to those he counsels in person, over the phone, and even by text. (Yes, Machete does text.) 

Ah, Machete. His most identifiable role and the one that cemented his status as an icon. Michelle Rodriguez and director Robert Rodriguez do not lose the importance. Everyone knows Machete. One of his fans was former president Barack Obama. 

Just like that, Danny went from inmate #1 to being #1 on the call sheet. Now with more than 350 credits to his name, far eclipsing the star he worshiped as a kid, this tough guy is still rising. This documentary attests to his reclamation to life on the outside. 

 Grade: B

INMATE #1 is now available on Digital.

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