Thursday, June 26, 2008
365 Films in 365 Days (v.1: "Champion")
Directed by Joe Eckardt
I've been a fan of actor Danny Trejo for years. While he typically gets minor roles (especially early in his career) playing thugs, bikers, or a combination of the two, he typically steals whatever scenes he's given. If you don't know who Danny Trejo is, you've probably seen him in a ton of movies. . . Heat, From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, Con Air, The Devil's Rejects, Six Days Seven Nights, Bubble Boy and a SHITLOAD of others.
Now, if you think a couple of those movies are dogshit, you haven't seen the near hundred movies I left off of it. Dude's made a lot of straight-to-video movies, but that doesn't matter. He's still good, even in the bad ones. It's not hard to imagine why Trejo never became a leading man: he's tattooed like a human canvas, his face looks like a map of the surface of the moon, and he's intimidating as a ticking bomb.
Until I discovered Champion when madly scrolling through Netflix before starting this 365 Movies in 365 Days insanity, I never realized that Danny Trejo doesn't just look like a bad motherfucker; he IS a bad motherfucker with a criminal, turbulent past.
Asked at the beginning of the documentary of his life for an early fond memory from his childhood, Trejo thinks for a moment and then laughs, saying "I can't really remember a happy time."
Trejo tells of smoking pot with his uncle Gilbert, whom he idolized, at age 8. His first arrest came at age 10. By age 12, again because of his uncle, he begins abusing heroin, a drug he continues to abuse because, "for the first time in my life, I wasn't feeling anything." Soon, he was helping his uncle sell heroin, following behind him with a mouthful of balloons.
Trejo recalls at one point robbing a liquor store at age 13. USING A HAND GRENADE. Have you ever heard of anyone getting tried for two counts of Mayhem? That term boils down to meaning "scarring or disfiguring someone," and Trejo did it. Twice.
Trejo's final arrest came in 1985, and he did 5 years for dealing heroin to a Federal agent. During that stint in jail, he spent almost 4 months in solitary confinement. It was during this time that he turned to god and completely changed his life around. He dedicated his life to helping others, and upon release from jail, immediately joined Alcoholics Anonymous (he went to meetings with Dennis Hopper) and became a suicide and drug counselor.
Champion is like sitting next to someone at a bar who seems perfectly friendly, and then learning that this friendly person. . . I don't know. . .has done time for MAYHEM. The movie itself isn't exceptionally well made. Obviously on a limited budget, it's essentially just Trejo talking in a variety of settings, including a return visit to Trejo's cell in San Quentin (in one of the film's most affecting scenes, Trejo becomes visibly upset and nervous sitting in his old cell, probably appreciating his freedom and the change in his life more than he could have imagined).
While Trejo's resume is piled high with movie rolls, the doc features only a few clips from one of the Spy Kids movies. It would seem that using some of Trejo's more dark film roles might help illuminate the point you are trying to make about him being a badass, rather than showing clips from a family movie while your subject says things like, "It's hard to listen to your mom when you're doing robberies" or, on giving advice on how to survive in San Quentin prison, "Grab somebody by the neck and bite 'em. All the sudden, they want to leave you alone." Another classic quote comes as Trejo is trying to describe how one must become the darkest, scariest version of himself in jail. "You have to turn that fear into madness," he says. Then, he briefly imitates someone failing at this, saying politely, "Excuse me, are you Mad Doggin' me?"
While Champion is no feat of film making, it is a surprisingly uplifting and fascinating story. Check out the brief bonus scenes for a humorous bit where Val Kilmer tries to pretend he's being interviewed for the documentary in order to get his children back from a hostage situation with Trejo.
For more on Champion:
- More movie information at the Internet Movie Database
- The official movie site.
- Champion on MySpace
- Buy it at Amazon.com