Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo

As a child, his fear of his father and grandfather pushed him towards his Uncle Gilbert, a criminal who introduced the boy to weed at the age of eight and heroin at 12.  Soon he was abetting armed robberies in his hometown of Pacoima, crimes that would eventually land him in San Quentin and Folsom Prisons.  And yet core values implanted earlier in a household of nine women, reinforced when he returned home to his father and stepmother and began to attend AA meetings lead him to the revelation that the best things always come about from helping people, something he continues to this day even after an unlikely, almost accidental Hollywood career.  In his own words, along with commentary from celebrity friends like Donal Logue, Cheech Marin and Michelle Rodriguez, fellow inmates and his children, we hear the incredible story of “Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo.”

Laura's Review: B+

The smartest thing cowriter (with his "Ice Guardians" scribe Scott Dodds)/director Brett Harvey is largely give the narrative reins of his documentary over to its charismatic subject.  Whether giving us a guided tour of his old neighborhood or talking (and laughing, infectiously) as he drives about in his ’56 Chevy Bel Air 350 V8, Trejo is a down to earth raconteur still amazed by his own fortune.  If you love the man as an actor, you’ll love him even more as himself.

The craggy faced 71 year-old expresses his love for Alice, the stepmother who showered him with love.  But after starting out in a household of nine women, he ends up with an unaffectionate father and his many siblings.  His Uncle Gilbert had cars, money and women, a potent combination that influenced a boy who began to think that knocking over neighborhood stores was normal.  After witnessing his uncle shooting up, Danny demanded he share the experience.  As Michelle Rodriguez observes, ‘the thing is it’s only blissful the first time, after that it’s the chase.’

After scores of armed robberies it was selling sugar as cocaine to a Fed that landed Trejo in San Quentin.  A former prison mate tells us that he still meets guys who remember him, not because he’s a movie star but because of who he was.  Sobering stuff.  Yet even then, Hollywood had its influence on the man.  When he landed in ‘the hole,’ he kept his sanity by reciting ‘The Wizard of Oz.’  His children describe an idolization of John Wayne that was so intense, they believed Wayne was a real historical figure.

And, we learn, prison influenced his future in Hollywood as well.  Trejo became an admirer of prison tattoos, sporting some very sophisticated ones like a peacock whose tail turns into a monster on his forearm.  But it is the one which covers his chest, a woman wearing a sombrero that took two years to complete, that caught the eye of “Runaway Train’s” screenwriter who recognized it and put Trejo on screen (Danny had visited the set to help a fellow addict).  He may have started with a series of ‘inmate #1’ roles, but his authenticity catapulted him into bigger ones, most notably when Robert Rodriguez cast him in 1995’s “Desperado.”  In another amazing bit of ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ the two discovered they were second cousins.

“Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo” is not only an amazing biography told with panache by the man who lived it, it is an uplifting tale of just what can be accomplished when people are given half a chance.  Trejo pays it forward, visiting prisons and counseling men

Robin's Review: B+

He was a drug addict at a young age, armed robber as a teen and server hard time at some of the California’s toughest prisons. Then, he changed his life, helping addicts and, oh yeah, became an icon in independent films and was known, early in his movie career, to casting agents as “Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo.”

Remember Luis Guzman? Of course you do but you might not know it. The Latinx actor was one always my favorite character actors (and still is). But the great Danny Trejo, years ago, made his own inroads into that favorite category with his debut, as Boxer, in Andrei Konchaovsky’s 1985 thriller, “Runaway Train,” and many film ever since. There, we learn from documentarian Brett Harvey in his lovingly thorough work, that Danny was hired as an extra, promoted to training Eric Roberts to box and, finally giving a credited part in the movie – at the tender age of 41.

Director Harvey, with co-scribe Scott Dodds, gives us a thorough chronicle of the amazing man’s, shall we say, colorful life, with Danny himself providing copious commentary. His story is told in a straightforward, chronological order, starting with his early days growing up in Pacoima neighborhood in LA. We learn about his early experiences with heroin addiction, his life of crime, like armed robbery, and convictions and time served in California’s prisons, like San Quentin. It is, to say the least, a lively (and extremely tough) story of the man.

As I watched Trejo’s fascinating story, I realized, at about the 55 minute mark, that Harvey and company had not even started its look into Danny’s prolific movie career – and I did not care, he is such an interesting subject. The film’s title refers to the actor being type-cast as the generic character in prison movies of the 80s and 90s (like Guzman, who was often cast as “Convict #2”). We also learn that his idol was John Wayne and, just so you know, Danny has 384 film and TV credits, and counting, under his belt. The Duke had a paltry 179.