It was only days ago that the film world was mourning the shocking and tragic early death of director John Singleton, whose game changing ‘90s drama Boyz n tha Hood helped kick off a wave of independent genre filmmaking where filmmakers and actors of underrepresented communities could produce stories by, for, and about themselves that also spoke the universal language of narrative entertainment.
That same spirit, if not the precise once-in-a-generation caliber of filmmaking, reverberates in El Chicano. An unusual hybrid of police thriller and gangland family melodrama, the film eventually transforms into a gritty vigilante superhero origin story. Longtime stunt professional Ben Hernandez-Bray describes his debut as a feature writer-director debut it as a semi-autobiographical story based in part on his own East Los Angeles upbringing and family, particularly his relationship with his late brother.
Set almost entirely in and around predominantly Mexican-American East Los neighborhoods, the story follows LAPD Detective Diego Hernandez (Raul Castillo) as he attempts to unravel a mass-execution of gang members that appears to have been carried out by their own leader. The dangerous local kingpin is also connected to the suspicious maybe/maybe-not suicide of said detective’s ex-felon twin brother. Amid the investigation of the elaborate mystery, which takes up much more of the running time than the film’s action-focused advertising would lead one to believe, Diego comes to believe that his brother had been attempting to not simply “go straight” but to revive the persona of “El Chicano.” A Latino version of the Punisher, the vigilante is said to have stalked the Barrio as far back as the 1950s, delivering justice from a souped-up motorcycle and executing villains with a ceremonial Aztec stone dagger.
The unfolding criminal conspiracy is revealed to involve a ruthless Mexican cartel moving into the city, threatening civilians, the police, and even the local small-time gangs. Diego has to decide whether to go outside the law and become the new El Chicano in his brother’s place, confronting the blurred lines that separated the dueling parts of his conflicted identity as a police officer, brother, and proud Mexican-American.
The plot is complicated to the point of being convoluted. After a brief prologue introducing a few of the characters as children and establishing that El Chicano did, at one point, actually exist, it takes a full hour for the costumed vigilante to come into play again. Until then, the film proceeds as a semi-grounded, realistic (if highly stylish) cop movie mainly concerned with fleshing out the complexities of the East Los Angeles community’s hierarchy. Character loyalties are divided between police and the streets, blood family and found family, and even language. Dialogue frequently switches between English and Spanish and English subtitles are only deployed for minimal exposition and a running subplot about whether or not Diego’s Midwestern partner is “Mexican enough” to be trusted by the locals.
El Chicano is a film with a lot of noble ambitions, which is why it’s unfortunate that it isn’t better than it is.
Even El Chicano’s eventual struggle against the cartel emerges from an eyebrow-raising ideological framework. Latino Angelinos who see themselves as successors to the revolutionaries who resisted the conquest of California by the U.S. must now repel a narco boss who burnishes his criminal menace with sermons preaching Reconquista zealotry. That’s certainly an unexpected tangle of nuances for a low-budget vigilante shoot-em-up mainly being advertised on the novelty of its R-rating as Avengers: Endgame counter-programming. It also claims to be the first Hollywood-released feature with an all-Latino main cast since 1997’s Selena, which feels like it shouldn’t be accurate. But the fact that you can’t immediately say it’s not somewhat makes the point by itself. That cast includes Aimee Garcia, Jose Pablo Cantillo, George Lopez, Marlene Forte, Sal Lopez, David Castaneda and a big star cameo at the very end that I assume gets a BIG reaction with the right audience.
El Chicano is a film with a lot of noble ambitions, which is why it’s unfortunate that it isn’t better than it is. It’s certainly not bad. It’s problems mainly stand out because it looks and feels so polished for the work of a first-time director and cost well under $10 million. It’s a slick-looking and largely involving feature, though it struggles with the tonal conflict of Hernandez-Bray obviously sincere commitment to getting a lifetime’s worth of extremely varied and complex thoughts about family, race, culture, history, ethnic-identity, Mexican-American history and the particularities of East Los Angeles into a singular narrative being combined with a character that’s something like a hybrid between Batman, the Punisher and Dirty Harry. That sort of thing was always going to be a heavy lift, and the fact that the abrupt gear-shift from Dick Wolf-style cop drama to Marvel Netflix-style superhero bloodbath in Act 3 works at all is a feat in itself.
El Chicano is an imperfect film, but genuine independent filmmaking from underheard, overlooked perspectives often is. What it may lack in polish and grace, it makes up in authenticity and earnestness. It’s worth looking for if and when it comes your way.