INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: BRETT HARVEY / STARRING: DANNY TREJO, ROBERT RODRIGUEZ, CHEECH MARIN / RELEASE DATE: 7TH JULY
Director Brett Harvey's portrait of Latino action god Danny Trejo, Inmate #1, leans heavily into its subtitle, “The Rise of Danny Trejo,” and that's a good thing. While the film does take a look at the now 76 year-old actor's work with the likes of Robert Rodriguez, Michael Mann and more, the real focus of this documentary is on Trejo's life as a whole, and there are a lot of things which happened before his first role in Andrei Konchalovsky's 1985 film, Runaway Train.
And, honestly, the stories of what happened prior to Trejo becoming an actor are far more interesting and pertinent to Danny Trejo the man than Danny Trejo's acting career. His life growing up Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood saw Trejo bouncing between various members of his family at an early age, eventually idolising his uncle Gilbert who would lead the young Danny into substance abuse and criminal activity.
The way Trejo speaks about his uncle might be one of the few times during Inmate #1 when the actor comes close to tears. While he's usually jocular and friendly, his trademark laugh frequently ringing out as he tells many stories of his eventful life, there are points – especially when discussing family – where Trejo becomes sombre. When discussing the death of Gilbert, there's an audible catch in his throat, as when discussing the fact that Michael Mann named his character Gilbert in the 1995 movie Heat, having actually met Trejo's uncle when shooting The Jericho Mile at Folsom State Penitentiary in the late 70s. It's a side of the actor not frequently seen, with maybe the exception of Laurie Collyer's Sherrybaby, where Trejo almost essentially plays himself – a former addict helping people out.
That, right there, is the heart of Inmate #1: the many ways in which Trejo turned from addiction and crime to helping people. Throughout the film, the actor speaks at many, many events in order to bolster peoples' spirits, and it's amazing to see how he connects with everyone. Given his vast number of film roles – more than 400, as of this writing – over the last 35 years, he's been in something that nearly everyone, from kids to great-grandparents, has seen, and everyone loves him.
The folks who love him are the ones with whom director Harvey speaks. While it's very likely that the director could have assembled a rogue's gallery and veritable who's who in Hollywood to talk about Trejo, he instead focuses on the actor's friends and family, all of whom share deeply considered insights into his life and career. These are folks who know the man, as opposed to those who just have anecdotes. The way in which Craig Balkam, Trejo's head of security, talks about him, shows more thoughtful consideration than most documentary talking heads.
Throughout the documentary, Trejo is featured in and around where he grew up and where he now lives, and it's readily apparent that the actor is deeply thoughtful about his life and where he came from, but also willing to live in the moment and accept his current success, and the way in which director Harvey presents everything means Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is a remarkably thorough and well-considered film.