Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo review – likeable tribute to an unlikely star

The cult actor best known for playing violent murderers and his role as Machete gets an affable and well-deserved documentary

Pockmarked skin, huge mustauche, and the most intense stare: Danny Trejo must have one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood. Even those who don’t know him, know him, thanks to countless appearances in an array of 90s action films, playing sinister bad guys whose sole purpose is to turn up, kill somebody, and then be violently killed themselves – decapitated, stabbed, blown up (and Trejo always happy to comply). He’s renowned, also, for his Mexploitation franchise, Machete, and has even subverted his cult persona with appearances in kids’ series Spy Kids.

Trejo also has a rather sordid past of which many will not be familiar, which is outlined in great detail in the first hour of this accessible and entertaining documentary, Inmate Number #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo. Growing up in Los Angeles, from a young age Trejo was involved in drugs and violent crime. A stint of armed robberies resulted in him being incarcerated in the biggest of all the big houses, San Quentin, where he served a twelve year sentence but gained a reputation as a talented boxer. Upon his release, a chance encounter on the set of Runaway Train launched an unexpected movie career.

The second hour covers his eclectic and remarkable rise in Hollywood (to date, he has close to 400 credits), from playing an assassin with no lines and plenty of knives in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado (it turn out they’re second cousins), and opposite De Niro in Michael Mann’s crime saga masterpiece Heat. Elsewhere, the film is padded out with candid interviews with Trejo himself, and with friends and family, including Cheech Marin and Rodriguez.

Trejo, who despite being 76, seems not to have aged much at all, is revealed here as a humble, down-to-earth, likeable and charitable figure. He’s seen giving talks at correctional facilities. He speaks at AA meetings. This is not an expose, as such, but more of a tribute to a man who reformed his ways and made something of himself.

There is, at times, a made-for-television vibe, which is not helped by a slightly cloying, sentimental musical score. The film also has a somewhat odd conceit of having family members and friends recounting stories for which they couldn’t have been present. But you come away with the sense that Trejo deserved a documentary of his own – his long and continued presence in Hollywood is nothing to be sniffed at.

Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is now available to rent and buy across streaming platforms.

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