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Film Review: ‘El Chicano’ Is A Classic Superhero Story With A Super Heavy Twist


There is much to celebrate over a movie featuring an all-Latino cast focused on a purported superhero. In “El Chicano,” those of us heard to complain about the lack of representation in Hollywood can see small signs of change. The story of the film is, at least in some ways, encouraging. Canadian producers liked what they saw and see the potential for a niche market asking to be serviced. Of course, the fact U.S. distributors passed on the project is also not something to celebrate.

el chicano publicity still 1 h 2019

And there are other elements to lament from the movie. For one, though billed almost as a Hispanic “Avengers,” “El Chicano” really is more a vigilante film – more “Punisher” than “Spider-Man.” Focused on a good East L.A. cop who becomes disillusioned and revenge-thirsty after a series of killings, the story is grizzly and violent. More fundamentally, and also, perhaps, most fascinating while slightly off-putting, is the perspective the film offers on racial assimilation, race, culture, and cross-border conversations. The ultimate message, that Mexicans across the border are bad, and immigrants would do well to band against them in their quest for white acceptance, is of dubious merit. But, at least it starts the conversation. The film takes on themes of crucial importance to Latinx communities, honestly and, clearly, without fear of repercussion, giving Latinx people something closer to home, something to argue about.

In some sense, “El Chicano” is a typical drug meets violence story. The film is not necessarily a step in the most positive direction of portraying Latinx as any other ethnic group or minority. Here, detective Diego (Raul Castillo) is disturbed to hear from a drug criminal that Diego’s brother, believed to have committed suicide, was actually murdered. Diego and his partner Detective Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) embark on a deadly, dangerous mission to uncover just what is behind a recent, merciless turf war between local drug gangs. Encouraged by their Captain, Captain Gomez (George Lopez), the duo soon uncovers a Mexican drug kingpin’s son has laid stakes to certain American drug turf, with brutally devastating consequences and a quickly-piling body count.

Though thematically similar to many movies in this genre, “El Chicano” spares little expense in showing off as a sophisticated, complex adult crime drama. At its best, its a Latinx version of “L.A. Confidential,” with fleeting allegiances and selfish pursuit dooming the characters. Even Diego, perhaps the one true person among a hopelessly corrupt bunch, cannot escape the wrath of his still-grieving mother. Nor can he, as it would seem, help but to adopt the titular persona his dead brother was thinking of resurrecting in a quest to seek justice where the system has failed on the streets of East L.A.

“El Chicano” is teeming with pride in the cultural identity that bears the film’s name. For the uninitiated, it refers to a cultural identification common to people of Latinx descent, particularly those living in border states. In the bottom echelon, Chicanos feel like they have a stake in both cultures, though they are strictly-speaking American English. Religious symbolism, pageantry, strong and even burdensome family ties are basic characteristics, all of which make appearance in this film. Proud adoption of some linguistic traits, not to mention culinary ones, are usually also prevalent and, sure enough, they appear in the film by director and writer Ben Hernandez Bray.

But “El Chicano’s” decision to pursue racial casting purity exacts a visible toll. Perhaps it is a purposeful one, since it is clearly symbolic of the central consequence of Diego’s actions themselves, once he sheds the blue uniform for face paint and a “paliacate” to cover his face. Because all characters in the film are played by Latinx actors, including Mexican soap opera star  Kate Del Castillo, the foils, too, must be Latinx. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a choice. Latinx routinely engage in street gang fights and the like. It is an unfortunate but accurate representation of certain sectors of our communities. But the depiction here is slightly different, more meaningful.

Here, the main bone of contention is between clearly deranged Mexican drug lords who fantasize the “reconquest” of lands Mexico lost to the United States in 1848, and the first and second generation immigrants hell bent on stopping them. It is an unsuitable message to the white oppressor: accept us, let us be like you, we will help you Build the Wall. Do we really need to advance that message? Latinx in the United States and those coming in still are without questioning, and, unfortunately, at odds many times. Did ‘El Chicano’ really need to come down so decisively on the size of “keep them out, now that I am in?” One wonders.

Perhaps I am reading too much into certain elements. The film’s plot is believable enough, the personification of the anti-hero realistic, and the film makes for quite compelling interesting drama. Like many films of similar themes remade with a different eye, movies like ‘El Chicano’ naturally peak a balance of interest and satisfaction, if only it had advanced some sort of message of Latinx harmony and not discord; us vs. them instead of us vs. us, I would feel more compelled to support it. Perhaps I am too sensitive, or that this is the inescapable reality of a country where sizable portions of Latinx favor excluding additional immigrants.

And here I thought movies was the place for dreams and hopes, and not cold shower brutality.

El Chicano” is distributed by Briarcliff Entertainment and hits theaters in the U.S.A. on May 3, 2019

GRADE: (★★)



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Written by J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.


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