Film review: Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo

Why should we take life lessons from a juvenile offender from the mean streets of Pacoima? A man who was a drug addict before he could drive, who robbed whatever he could, and ended up graduating to San Quentin? A man whose anger and addictions nearly put him in the gas chamber fifty years ago?

Because he’s Danny Trejo, and he wants to save your life. And by saving your life, he wants to save his own.

Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo came out last July, in the middle of the pandemic, which meant that it didn’t get the reach it deserved. Documentaries have a tough market in theaters, but Trejo’s near-ubiquity in films (a whopping 402 acting credits on IMDB) would likely have drawn people to see it. His unmistakable presence on screen practically exudes “bad guy,” and Hollywood has made good use of that, both directly and at other times in a sense of fun.

“Bad guy” was no act for Trejo, however. Back in the day, that was a good description of Trejo. That’s the story that Trejo wants to tell everyone, not to glory in it but to show how people can redeem themselves. Inmate #1 is all about redemption; not only does Trejo make you believe in redemption, he makes you wonder why you ever doubted it at all. Trejo tells this story everywhere he goes, to schools, self-help groups for addicts of all kinds, and especially in prisons.

“I owe a debt,” Trejo says. “A debt to society.” Everything Trejo does is to make it right. He stayed in Pacoima to make up for the damage he did there as a kid and young adult. Trejo discovered that the only way to redeem himself was not just to get sober, but also to orient his life to helping others. Only when he began to do that, Trejo tells everyone (and us), did good things start happening in his life.

There’s plenty in Inmate #1 about those good things, too. Trejo tells his stories of Hollywood with joy and laugh-out-loud sense of humor. There are so many great nuggets along the way that it’s impossible to recall them all, but the one with Salma Hayek and his prominent tattoo is hilarious. Beyond the bad-guy façade is a real actor, and beyond that is a man with a huge heart who wants to lift up everyone around him. Because he owes a debt.

Most of us love films about redemption and second chances in adversity, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Casablanca and more recent films like Rudy and A Beautiful Mind. Danny Trejo is an embodiment of this in real life, as told in Inmate #1. Trejo and this film remind us that every human being has value, and redemption is always a possibility. There’s no lectures, no politics — just Trejo’s joy and wonder, his amazing journey, and his relentless mission to save as many people as possible along the way.

Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo gets a 4:

  • 4 – Buy the film/subscribe to the service
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

I saw it on a rental, but I have since purchased it to keep it around. This is a journey I’ll revisit, perhaps when I really need a lift. It’s one of the most inspirational, entertaining, and funny documentaries I’ve seen in a long time.

Inmate #1 has no MPAA rating, thanks to its Internet-only release, but it would certainly get an R if it appeared in theaters. Its language and content is not for young viewers, but teens should have no problems handling it, especially under proper parental supervision.

Update: I replaced the IMDB link to the film with that of the film’s official website above.

Update, 4/15: I meant A Beautiful Mind, not A Beautiful Life. I’ve corrected it above. My apologies for any confusion.