Danny Trejo has become something of a cult icon in the past decade. Appearances in films like Heat, Desperado and Con Air made him a recognisable face in the ‘man’s man film’ realm.
In this documentary we meet the man behind the face, learning of his tough childhood in Pacioma, LA, which led to heroin abuse at a young age and came hand in hand with violent crime and jail time. The main focus of the film appears at first to be a redemption story, and an impressive one at that. After an early life spent in and out of prison, Trejo finally gets out and changes his life around. He becomes a councillor and through that, and some fortunate meetings, a successful and highly prolific actor.
It’s distracting that a large amount of time is spent telling escalating tales of how tough Trejo was, with talking heads that very much teeter on the tightrope of glorifying his escapades. The problem with a redemption story is that it’s all too common for the struggles of the past to be glorified, with the recovery becoming secondary. This is what happens during Inmate #1. Although Trejo himself does the common PTSD reaction of laughing when retelling his experiences, you can tell the pain and the guilt that has built up within him and he comes across as a man grateful for his experiences as they give him perspective on how great his life has become. The documentary doesn’t go too far into what he actually did to end up in prison, glossing over it and putting the blame on an uncle that was a very dangerous influence on him.
Too many details are skipped in this documentary; how Trejo went clean is a one sentence story, and we don’t learn anything about how the pressure of masculinity in prison led him to get more and more violent. The filmmakers seem entirely interested in painting the picture of a ‘tough’ guy gone soft rather than making a statement, which seems like a wasted opportunity. Trejo, with his charity work, counselling experience and recovery, could be the perfect tale of the power of rehabilitation in a country with a failing prison system, but instead it feels a little bit like a ‘men and motors’ version of a hallmark channel daytime film.
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is available on digital platforms from 22 June 2020