You may recognise Danny Trejo if you have watched an action movie from the late eighties onwards, he has a very distinctive face and a badass attitude that makes him difficult to miss. But did you ever consider the man behind those roles? It will not surprise you that he did not get into acting on these things through a flower arranging course, in fact he has had an extremely tough life, and much of that was his own fault, though just as much was down to his environment and how that shaped his early years. He may be living a comfortable life now, but time was he lost a lot of the first half of his life to his experiences in prison, where he gained a reputation as one of the hardest nuts to crack in the system, and given he was an inmate of some of the biggest hellholes in jails, that was something.
Some actors have, it's fair to say, more interesting lives onscreen than off, they may have the odd anecdote they can roll out for the chat shows or interviews, but in the main, they have never done anything too remarkable outside of their careers. Trejo is different, and Canadian documentary maker Brett Harvey thought his story was worth telling; he begins with shots of his subject introducing himself to a group of prisoners, for that is what Trejo does when he is not acting, he gives inspirational talks. But nothing corny, nothing phoney, since he has his experience to back up his lessons, and the inmates listen to him as they not only have watched him in the movies, but they know he speaks from the heart when he tells them of his real life trials and tribulations inside.
This was basically a film of two halves, the first where Trejo discusses his youth and prison years, and the second where he lucked into working on movies, eventually rising to a name above the title star. This sounds unlikely in synopsis - for more than one reason, he could easily have died back in the nineteen-fifties and sixties when he was part of the Mexican Mafia and paying the price for his misdeeds - but when you hear the man tell it, it appears as though it was meant to be, and he had to endure his low points for the high points to be all the sweeter. And not merely for him, as he genuinely helps those who go through what he did, which after all is a set of problems that have not gone away. This documentary does not get religious at all, but you could well believe some God of the Movies was looking out for this man in the knowledge of the good he could do.
Good in a couple of methods, by being an inspiration as an ex-con and proving you did not have to descend into crime to get by in his world, and in his acting, as a representation of his culture and background that is ultimately positive, for all his bad guy status in the films he appears in. Although he remains a man you would be wise not to cross here, his granite features breaking into laughter but also growing solemn and serious when the mood takes him, he has walked the walk and is able to talk the talk as a result. His early memories of movies are that John Wayne was his hero, but that Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, who Wayne worked with on cult classic Rio Bravo, proved to him that Mexican Americans could succeed as actors too. Some of Trejo's showbiz pals appear to fill in a few gaps in his story, as do his family, but really he is a great storyteller on his own. As a film, this could easily have been a two-part television documentary with no harm done, and as such it sprawls a shade too much, but Trejo is a man you want to hear about, and this delivers.