I've been a fan of Danny Trejo's work since his debut as the tattooed jailhouse boxer in the frosty nailbiter RUNAWAY TRAIN (which I recently recommended). Though he wasn't known yet, Trejo had a face and a presence that stuck with you. Soon enough, he would be known to filmgoers worldwide.
After Bretty Harvey's excellent ICE GUARDIANS, I was eagerly anticipating his documentary about the 76-year-old Chicano legend, INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO. I'm happy to report that Harvey absolutely nailed it again.
INMATE #1 is a genuine, heartfelt, funny, and ultimately uplifting story of recovery and redemption about a stick-up artist turned theatrical artist. And that's largely thanks to the warm Trejo's on-camera, first person recollections of a wild childhood with his uncle that put him in and out of juvie for years before he finally found himself upstate doing hard time in San Quentin, where he became a three-time boxing champ.
After finishing his last bid in 1969, Trejo worked as a substance abuse counselor who, through fortuitous circumstaces, found himself on a movie set and landed a role as an extra. But thanks to his tough appearance, jacked physique, legendary jailhouse tats, and boxing pedigree, his role was upgraded and he was put in charge teaching Eric Roberts how to box.
That role put him on a path that would later lead to him appearing alongside Robert DeNiro while being directed by Michael Mann in the 1995 bank job masterpiece HEAT. DeNiro encouraged him to take as much work as he can because it might not be there tomorrow. And as Trejo's IMDb page indicates, he listened to the legendary actor's advice.
The doc also features interviews with Trejo's kids, friends (like Cheech Marin and Donal Logue), and other associates to provide additional perspectives on the man who went from the dreaded hole to lead role. Trejo, who still lives in the Pacoima that he robbed blind as a young hellion, is a living example that it's never too late to start making a difference and Harvey's doc does a fantastic job of showing the entirety of his redemption. INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO gets my highest recommendation. Go watch it.