The life story of Danny Trejo is told in a fascinating new documentary – here’s our review of Inmate #1.

Danny Trejo’s rise through Hollywood has been an unlikely one. Frequently cast as a tough-looking inmate or gang member, Trejo would pop up as disposable henchman and cannon fodder for movie star heroes for years. As he started to make an impression on Hollywood, he was able to fight his way up to larger, more prominent roles, eventually achieving leading man status some 25 years into his career. Trejo went from a minor role in Runaway Train to standout supporting turns in movies like Desperado, Heat and Spy Kids, before finally landing a starring role in Machete. He has become one of Hollywood’s most prolific performers, with hundreds of acting credits to his name, becoming a figure in pop culture along the way. That is an inspirational story.

It’s not, however, a complete story. On the silver screen, Trejo has lived hundreds of lives, died and died again. He’s done it all, from sword-fighting Steven Seagal to romancing Lindsey Lohan (and both of those things happened in the same movie). But before that, Trejo had lived a life as dangerous and difficult as any story he’d go on to tell in a movie. In Brett Harvey’s documentary Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo, the actor guides us through his early years, telling outlandish and outrageous stories of criminal escapades and of tragedies, our storyteller seemingly amused and haunted all at once. His early experiences are both wildly entertaining yet brutal and grimy.

By the time we get to Trejo’s journey through Hollywood (his anecdotes of movie sets are a highlight), we understand that the authenticity that made him stand out in the movies was paid for in pain and mistakes. The narrative story at the heart of this documentary is very strong, and the filmmakers do their best to stay out of its way. As such, there are no great innovations in filmmaking on display nor is it a particularly exciting documentary to look at. Rather, it’s a slick-looking, functional and really pacey runthrough of Danny Trejo’s obscenely interesting life. The filmmakers have access to Trejo’s family, friends, co-stars and collaborators, all of whom speak of him with convincing reverence. You may expect little else, but then it’s a documentary that doesn’t shy away from Trejo’s criminal past.

The tone of the interviews offer an interesting insight into Trejo’s career. Robert Rodriguez, for example, tells his (utterly brilliant) Danny Trejo tales with giggling glee – it’s no wonder he keeps on casting him in his films. Really, though, the reason this film works, and it does, is because Danny Trejo is so interesting to watch. He’s charismatic and he tells stories well. Trejo has an infectious laugh and, in spite of the gravity of many of the stories he’s telling, is able to communicate with warmth and lightness. There are a few inclusions towards the end of the documentary that feel uncomfortably out of place and intrusive, offering no additional insight into our subject and making unnecessary voyeurs of the audience. Conversely, accompanying Trejo to speaking engagements offers an important redemptive element to the film.

A pure, simple and satisfying redemption story. Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo is equal parts entertaining, illuminating and heartbreaking. Fans who have been watching Trejo for years will get a big kick out of this one.

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