Boxer. Prisoner. Chulo. Geronimo. Navajas. Gilbert. Johnny-23. Razor Eddie. Slim. Luis. Machete. These are just a few of the names of the characters actor Danny Trejo took over his 37-year career as an actor. He’s played everything from a stereotypical prisoner to a silent assassin to an undead barroom host, all leading him to a character that would become the baddest federale this side of the Mexican-American border: Machete. It would be easy to list out Trejo’s bonafides as the actor has worked with directors and casts big and small over his extensive career, but the true measure of his life is the lengths he’s gone, and continues to go to, to make good on a promise between himself and G-d. Director Brett Harvey’s documentary Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo takes audiences through Trejo’s life as a kid growing up in Pacoima, California, and how he become addicted to heroin at 12, robbed local stores, and ended up bouncing from one prison to another until he was released in 1969. Harvey’s documentary minces no words and gives no quarter as audiences are invited in by Trejo, his family, and his friends, to discuss a life lived on borrowed time.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you might think that Inmate #1, given its happy ending, would be a jaunty, light affair, but that would be the furthest from the truth. Instead, the audience is clued in quickly through a somber and tense opening credit sequence that the tale we are about to witness is as much an exploration of a man’s life as it is a warning. To paraphrase something Trejo himself states during the documentary, allow his life to make the mistakes so that yours does not. The phrase is indicative of a man who is keenly aware of a life touched by violence that cannot be forgotten. For as jovial a man as Trejo appears, often shown laughing or cracking jokes throughout, Harvey manages to catch Trejo with a sorrowfulness hidden beneath the veneer. It’s there in the way Trejo laughs about his past, a pitch too high with an energy that wants you to laugh with him, to be comforted by what signal the laughter should convey, which instead is recognizable as an attempt to obscure an unhealing laceration. To be clear, there’s nothing to pity about Trejo’s life and the documentary implies heavily that Trejo certainly doesn’t pity it himself. He views himself as fortunate from having survived and lives each day this way. This is, perhaps, what sets the man apart from others in his profession. As presented by Harvey, Trejo may be working on 9-11 different projects a year whereas others may only engage in 2-3. He appears to have no shame or embarrassment from any gig as long as it pays. It’s partially how he got his start as a boxer in Runaway Train, a wonderfully hilarious story with a touching beginning, and explains how he’ll take a job that results in his being a head riding a tortoise in an episode of Breaking Bad. He’s not cash-starved or the paragon of avarice. Oh no, it’s the opposite. He loves to work and finds the joy in everything; something that’s made abundantly clear in the later portion of the documentary as the audience learns about Trejo’s rise to global awareness.
It’s the first half, though, where the audience will feel the gut-punch. You see, if there’s a rise, there’s often a fall to accompany it. In Trejo’s case, he was a kid who didn’t know better, removed from supportive influences and into the hands of someone who loved him but encouraged immoral behavior on a kid as young as 8. Through family photos, testimonies from friends and family, along with a driving tour of Pacoima from Trejo, the audience is taken through how this charismatic kid from small town, U.S.A grows to become one of the most fearsome and notorious men in the California prison system. In this portion of the documentary, the audience is shown all the good and all the bad in equal measure, ensuring that it’s as free from bias as possible. In fact, one of the things you might notice is that many of the stories in the entire documentary are supplemented or somehow contributed to by others in Trejo’s circle. In some respects, telling the stories this way enables Harvey to insert energy and momentum as the camera shifts in angle or the story jumps to another person’s perspective. Trejo himself tells plenty, so there’s never a sense that it’s only secondhand, but the jumping around begins to exude that same feeling when a group of friends tell a story they’ve heard a million times and never get tired of it. Each one adding a tidbit before someone else jumps in with their portion. This makes the more emotional stories feel more weighted and the happier one more jubilant. In combination with actual location shifts to denote whether the story is taking place in Pacoima, one of several prisons, or Trejo’s work in cinema, there’s always a sense of energy. Because of these moving pieces working to tell the hard truths of Trejo’s life, audiences become swept up in a tale that’s often too remarkable to be believed. For instance, there are two moments in Trejo’s life where he can pinpoint a shift in trajectory. The first comes after a fight interrupted a domino game he knew he would win. As he explains, sitting in his cell post-fight, he was stunned that he wasn’t initially concerned with the violence enacted before him until that protective switch went off, the one which he and others in his circle describe as an psychological deterrent to survive in prison, and he became mad at the man for ruining his chances at winning. The second one you’ll need to watch Inmate #1 to discover for yourself. Moments like these are frequent in Inmate #1, each one becoming harder to hear than the last, but each story must be heard for Trejo’s stories and their telling are not hollow. They are lessons to be considered and remembered. It’s why Trejo spends so much of his time as an adult doing something he could never do as a young man strung-out on pills: be the change he needed. Now Trejo routinely attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, visits prisons as a speaker to inmates in an attempt to inspire change within themselves, and speaks to offer advice to people in the social work community. Whether presenting the bad of his life or the efforts to make good, Harvey never strives to abolish Trejo’s sins. From the subtext of Trejo’s words and reactions to the stories, those can never be truly removed. All Trejo can do is attempt to serve and make amends.
Of the many stories I have related to film — being alone in the theater for the first time to see Batman, the numerous times my mother took me to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit turned its run, continuing the legacy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show throughout my time at UNC at Asheville (go Bulldogs!) — the one that brings me the most joy is the time I saw Desperado with my father after he’d deemed Pulp Fiction too violent. We knew immediately that he’d made the wrong choice as we walked in late mid-opening gun fight. We laughed about it afterward, sure, but I remember just being blown away by Robert Rodriguez’s film. The humor, the action, the music, and, of course, the performances. The one that struck me most was entirely silent and it was my introduction to Danny Trejo’s work. Without so much as a sound, Trejo’s Navajas dominated the screen, a shark of a man perpetually moving, even if just to scan the terrain. Later, I would see him pop up as Razor Eddie in Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn and a new side was presented, as this time Trejo was given dialogue. He was charming, hilarious, and, nevertheless, just as deadly. Then, of course, he became Uncle Machete in another Rodriguez project, Spy Kids, which would serve as the spring-board for one of his largest and noteworthy projects. Stories like mine are a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the world as the way in which audiences engage with film are incredibly personal. As we learn in Inmate #1, the person Trejo admires most is John Wayne. So much so that it took some time for his kids, who participate in the documentary, to learn that Wayne is an actor and not a military or historical figure. Especially when he shares stories from his later work, you can still see that boyish excitement, that idolatry of a cinematic hero to the point where when Trejo tells two different stories about working with Robert de Niro (Heat and Machete), his entire tone and physicality changes. In both tales, set 15 years apart from each other, you can see the absolute giddiness Trejo feels to have worked with De Niro, to see the incredible wonder of how far his life has come, and how he has never lost that sense of appreciation.
Whether you come to Inmate #1 with fresh eyes or those of a longtime fan, you’ll come away from it changed. As any good documentary with do, it takes its audience on a journey of discovery with specific intent. Of the documentaries I’ve seen of late, Harvey’s is both the most respectful of his subject while being entirely honest with his audience. Nothing is presented as taboo or as to be avoided. Even if not all areas of his personal life are explored, there are no significantly hidden portions. Trejo is a man who has seen what the bottom looks like, who has lived there and survived it. He has no desire to return and relishes each moment off the ground. As of this writing, Danny Trejo has amassed 404 acting credits with projects in various stages of production. If Inmate #1 is to be believed, even at 76 years of age, he’s only getting started.
Available on VOD and digital July 7th, 2020.
Head to the official Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo website for information on where to watch the documentary.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.