EL CHICANO: Superhero Action Film Plays Big and Shows Heart

Raúl Castillo as Diego Hernández who dons a mask as obsidian knife-wielding, motorcycle-riding superhero.
Review by Alci Rengifo

El Chicano is both a throwback and a sign of progress. It gives us a genuine, big screen Latinx superhero while basking in classic midnight movie style. This is the kind of guilty pleasure you should seek in an old school neighborhood movie theater, wherever they still exist, and cheer on a costumed avenger who wields an Aztec war knife.

Writer/director Ben Hernández Bray borrows from every recognizable superhero movie trend, updating it all with the polished veneer of a Latinx vision celebrating the Eastside of Los Angeles.
Raúl Castillo plays Diego Hernández, an LAPD detective from East L.A. who still feels connected to his neighborhood and lives with wife Vanessa (Aimee García). His brother Pedro had been a bright prospect years ago, but was gunned down in a suspected drug gang conflict.

When a warehouse riddled with the corpses of murdered gang members is discovered, Hernández is tapped by Captain Gómez (George López) to get answers. Partnered with fellow Detective Martínez (José Pablo Cantillo), Diego revisits old haunts and infamous locals such as José “Shotgun” Gallant (David Castañeda), a thug making big money from local criminal enterprises. Gallant was also there years ago when he and Diego were kids and a masked figure appeared from the shadows, the mythical El Chicano, to extract street justice on a local crook.

The trail soon leads to the Verdugo Cartel in Mexico, led by El Gallo (Sal López), who seeks to “reconquer” California as a land once Mexican before the U.S. takeover of 1848. As Diego moves closer to uncovering El Gallo’s plans, he might also face once again the masked El Chicano, who long thought disappeared, was always waiting in the underground.

The premise of El Chicano needs to be enjoyed as a Mexican heir to the tradition of genres like Blaxploitation, except current technology allows it to look sleek. The story moves along in classic hero origin fashion, but adjusted for the Latinx culture of East Los Angeles. Director Bray, George López, Raúl Castillo and Aimee García shared their personal takes on the making and significance of El Chicano with us.

“The last three directors to win Oscars have been Mexican, you don’t hear a lot about that in the media,” said López, one of the biggest modern Mexican-American actors and comedians. “This is a small film, not an expensive one, but it plays big. It’s loud, dark, dramatic. It plays big.”

“Family and culture inspired me the most,” said Bray. “I lost a brother to gang violence ten years ago, and therapeutically, I started writing a memoir about how I dealt with his death, how my brothers and sisters dealt with it. This whole superhero theme was also a metaphor for not having a father, because my mother and grandmother raised us. That’s where it all started.”

“It’s been almost 20 years, when you look at movies like Selena, that was 1997, and before that La Bamba and Stand and Deliver, that we had Latino stories onscreen. We are a quarter of the audience, but we over-index on genre films. So films like Avengers, 75% of the audience are Latino,” said García, “And yet onscreen only 3% of the characters are Latino. So we are essentially invisible onscreen when we are visible commercially. I’d like that to make that more even.”

Cinematographer Juan Miguel Azpiroz borrows lighting techniques from superhero movies like Blade and Batman Begins, while the music by Mitch Lee goes for the pounding rhythms Hans Zimmer pioneered in The Dark Knight. Bray even goes for a Christopher Nolan-worthy running time, clocking in at two hours and 22 minutes. And yet it never drags.

“One of the biggest things for me is human behavior,” said Bray when discussing his influences for the movie. “Once Were Warriors was a big one for me, the sense of family and culture was relatable for Chicanos, also Los Olvidados by Luís Bunuel was another huge one for me, and also popcorn feel-good movies like Rocky, where you just cheer for the underdog.”

Bray cleverly takes archetypical comic book characters and places them in the story’s world. López’s Captain Gómez is a Mexican-American Commissioner Gordon while Diego is the good man in all of these stories, honest and beyond corruption, who we suspect will not only cross paths with El Chicano, but put on a mask as well. What we expect from a film like this is amped up entertainment, and Bray, who has directed episodes of action heavy TV series such as Supergirl, Arrow and Lucifer, gives us shadowy streets, snarling criminals, gangsters in limousines and skillfully choreographed fight scenes. Because he can’t depend on a high CGI budget there are no absurdly complex sequences. Much of El Chicano harks back to action filmmaking where characters fight with their fists outdoors on rainy nights.

Even El Chicano himself lacks any razzle-dazzle super powers. Instead, he rides a motorcycle, wears an ominous mask and uses an Aztec obsidian blade to take down foes. Because Bray has a sense of style it’s all quite fun. “Hopefully it can do what Black Panther did. I hope people from all ethnicities and backgrounds can go see it and walk out thinking, ‘I can do this,’” said García.

López emphasized the need for fans and community members to come out and support the movie, citing how directors like Spike Lee actively try to inspire their base to come and support projects you usually don’t get out of Hollywood. “They tell everybody they have to see the movie the first weekend, because it’s decided pretty early that a potential franchise relies on people turning out to see it. Marvel and Avengers can absorb a big hit like we can’t.”

For Castillo, El Chicano was the culmination of a long road towards acting that began during his high school years growing up in McAllen, Texas. “It was ten minutes from where my parents are from in Mexico,” he said. “I had to pick an elective and they wouldn’t let me into the orchestra, I had a cousin who was doing tech theater at the time. In Texas it’s all about football, but there was this culture of drama class. I quickly saw it as my ticket out, and realized I could apply to college and study theater, and I did, I was the first person in my family to go to college.” Even before settling on being an actor, Castillo tried his hand at playwriting. “I just didn’t think I had the polish to be an actor, so I started writing plays but that was a great instruction in our craft.”

“Growing up I was not only exposed to the gangs, but the drugs, the streets, I had familia in East Los Angeles… I don’t think anybody else could tell this story as a director, it’s as authentic as we can get it,” said Bray. “You have to live it, you have to be exposed to it. I still have homies living in the neighborhood.”

“Everybody in this movie is so good, you see them from a Latino eye and you see all of this great Latino talent,” said López. “I hope people just go to the theater for what the theater was created for, for escape, to see westerns, science fiction, etc. I remember when Star Wars first came out and walking out like ‘wow!’”

Just by bridging cultural gaps through popular entertainment, El Chicano also celebrates diversity in its own way. “This is a political act in itself, in this day and age, to have an all Latino cast in a story that is exceptional,” said Castillo. Also making a small appearance in the film is Mexican television star Kate del Castillo, who plays a Verdugo cartel head, hinting at a wider story line to come.

“I also play the only Latina scientist on the show Lucifer, and I can see the impact that has all across ages and ethnicities,” added García. “This movie is important, and if it does well it will hopefully lead to more, while entertaining audiences. To me, the best way to change someone’s mind and heart is through a good story.”


Popular posts from this blog

OP-ED: Why I Did Not Resign; Outgoing Council Member Issues Righteous Reality Check

OP-ED: It's the People's House, Disrespect at Your Own Peril