El Chicano - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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El Chicano

Directed by Ben Hernandez Bray

Screenplay by Ben Hernandez Bray and Joe Carnahan

Starring Raul Castillo, Aimee Garcia, Jose Pablo Cantillo, David Castaneda, Marco Rodriguez, George Lopez

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know that I seek out independent cinema where I can find stories that push boundaries. Stories that challenge us to think outside our comfort zones and down-to-earth characters that I can potentially relate to.

“El Chicano” is one of those stories. The film isn’t really interested in what you think about. Nor does it care that you won’t agree with its politics. The story centers around three main situations: the east side of Los Angeles, a cop who tries to solve his brother’s murder and an avenging vigilante.

Bray’s story, based on his memoirs about the death of his brother uses the gang elements to build the meat on the story. It is a detective story, with Raul Castillo in the role of Pedro Hernandez. He’s a stand-up detective who will fight to protect his family, both blood and blue. His partner, Detective Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) is the perfect foil. He is constantly reminded that his street smarts from Chicago won’t necessarily work in Los Angeles, but he definitely can hold his own.

Joe Carnahan will be familiar to audiences for his film “Narc,” as well as “Smokin’ Aces.” He co-wrote the screenplay with Bray. The story is steeped in Mexican history and revenge became a common theme. The level of violence in the movie didn’t shock me, but it was unrestrained. The opening scene set in the past, when Pedro, Diego and “Shotgun” (David Castaneda as the adult “Shotgun”) were kids.

They were witness to El Chicano’s first appearance. The level of detail that went into creating the myth in the story and on the screen was impressive for this level of production. The touches that were added heighten the tension and the excitement, even though the narrative projects itself.

That’s the beauty and the drawback of the story – it does write itself, but it seems to paint itself into a corner as well. We know how this story is going play out. It manages to set itself apart by having well rounded characters.

I did feel that the story leaned a little too heavily on the Mexican history of gringos taking the land that is now California, Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico. It plays into the gangster elements just a bit too easily but it works because of the characters who carry its part of the story. The violence was comical because it was so over the top. It reminded me of Mark Goldblatt’s “The Punisher” where the motives behind that film’s Frank Castle matches Pedro’s motives. It also reminded me of a smaller film with similar themes and characters from 1993 called “Street Knight,” featuring Jeff Speakman and Marco Rodriguez who plays Jesus in this film.

Outside of Pedro, Jesus is one of the most interesting characters. His character isn’t wooden or token; he has a depth that really gives credence to El Chicano. He also a plays a messianic character; not necessarily a deity, but a spiritual character that carries the history and serves as a medium between the culture and the events that unfold in the story. Rodriguez’s performance, though minimal should not be underestimated.

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George Lopez has some very choice words as Captain Gomez. He’s also got the streetwise wisdom to back it up. It was a nice dramatic turn for this stand-up comedian, playing a father figure to Pedro. There is trust between the two characters, which probably stretches too many boundaries, but I bought into why their dynamic worked.

“El Chicano” works because of its characters and themes. It plays the violence card a bit too heavily handed. The myth works because of the characters that perpetuate it, not because of the myth itself.

2.5 out of 4 stars