Producers: Rocky Mudaliar and Adam Scorgie   Director: Brett Harvey   Screenplay: Scott Dodds and Brett Harvey   Cast: Danny Trejo, Donal Logue, Michelle Rodriguez, Cheech Martin, Robert Rodriguez, Craig Balkam, Danny Trejo Jr., Danielle Trejo, Gilbert Trejo, Gloria Hinojosa and Jhonnie Harris   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  B

The old saw about truth being stranger than fiction is certainly proven by Brett Harvey’s documentary about Danny Trejo, who became a prolific movie actor after a troubled boyhood and a stint in prison.  If his story were told in the form of a bit of Hollywood make-believe, it would be dismissed as not just implausible but absurd.  And yet as filmmakers as varied as Orson Welles and Ed Wood have said, it’s all true!  

The film is anchored in a long interview with Trejo himself (Harvey serving as his own cinematographer) , who’s deliciously straightforward in recalling his unlikely career and unexpected good fortune—and, we see, eager to use his fame to give back to the community.  Born in 1944 in Los Angeles, he fell under the influence of his uncle Gilbert, who introduced him to drugs and crime.  He wound up in a succession of California lockups during the sixties, including San Quentin, where he became a champion prison boxer.  By the time he was released—having just skirted an accusation of attacking a guard—he had learned some valuable lessons.

He vowed to go straight, and did just that, becoming a drug counselor.  It was in that capacity that he found himself on the set of Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Runaway Train” in 1985, where Eddie Bunker,  another ex-con who was one of the picture’s screenwriters, recognized him from San Quentin and got him the job of training Eric Roberts, one of the stars, for a boxing scene.  His fearsome look led the director to offer him a small role in the movie, and his acting career was launched. 

Over the ensuing thirty-five years Trejo has appeared in nearly four hundred movies and TV shows, far exceeding the number of his childhood idol John Wayne.  In his first appearances he was invariably billed as Inmate #1 or Gangster #1—hence the documentary’s title—but in 1987 he became a named character for the first time, one Art Sanella in “Dearth Wish 4: The Crackdown,” starring Charles Bronson.  By the next decade he’d not only appeared in scores of relatively low-budget movies, but was cast alongside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995) and Nicolas Cage in “Con Air” (1997). 

Trejo proves a jolly raconteur, telling funny anecdotes about Bronson, Cage and De Niro—the last in terms of their meeting on the set of Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete” in 2009.  That movie—which ironically originated in a fake trailer that was part of the jokey “Grindhouse” Rodriguez had co-directed with Quentin Tarantino in 2007 (although the character went back to “Spy Kids” in 2001)—became a cult classic, providing the actor with what has to be called his signature role.

But while Trejo’s jocular reminiscences of his movie career are engaging, it’s his more serious reflections about his personal life before “stardom” that will stick with you.  He’s uncompromising as he explains, without phony sentiment, why he was attracted to life as a thug as a kid (moving in with his censorious father after spending time living with his grandmother, he gravitated toward his uncle’s apparent wealth and power), and how quickly he learned the realities of prison life and used his bruising strength and menacing appearance to his advantage.  He also deals wistfully with memories of his stepmother, who shielded him as much as she could from his father’s moods and whom he cherished until her death.  The film also documents Trejo’s close relationships in his California neighborhood, as well as the uplifting messages he delivers in talks to prisoners and students.  It even closes with him welcoming his nephew Gilbert, son of the uncle who introduced him to crime, as the younger man is released after a long prison term. 

To Trejo’s own recollections are added wry comments from his children, as well as friends and colleagues like Donal Logue, Michelle Rodriguez and Cheech Martin, as well as Robert Rodriguez, who gave Trejo one of his biggest breaks as the silent killer in “Desperado” (1995) and then went on to feature him in “Spy Kids” and create the iconic “Machete.”  Multiple clips from Trejo’s films and television appearances, as well as a great deal of archival material and contextual footage are also included, the various components integrated into a smoothly-flowing whole by editor Stephen Green, with Derek Heisler’s art direction adding a nice sheen and Alec Harrison’s music some complementary tones.

Even if you don’t know Trejo’s name, you’ll recognize his face, and Harvey’s nicely modulated biography will certainly make you remember his extraordinary life.