Billed as “The First Latino Superhero Film” in its promotional materials, “El Chicano” debuted in theaters just this past weekend. The film comes at a time when Hispanics make up a large contingent of the domestic moviegoing audience, yet have only a small fraction of the speaking parts in those same films.
“El Chicano” begins in East Los Angeles, where kids witness a local legend doling out vigilante justice to gang bangers. The mysterious masked man first spray-paints street signs with graffiti symbols on the streets of bad neighborhoods, then smashes the signs, and knocks them to the ground.
This opening has all the subtlety of a jackhammer and reflects most of what the rest of the film has to offer.
Many years later, memories of El Chicano are still lodged in the mind of dashing Los Angeles police detective Diego Hernandez (Raúl Castillo, who was great in the 2018 indie film “We the Animals”).
This indie project is the brainchild of and somewhat a passion project for veteran stunt coordinator Ben Hernandez Bray, who not only grew up in Southern California but also lost a brother to gang violence.
Backing up this first-time feature director is his longtime friend, filmmaker Joe Carnahan (“The Grey,” “The A-Team”), who produced the film and co-wrote the script as well.
Carnahan also has a bit part as a Fed who is looking into an LAPD murder investigation being carried out by Diego and his immediate superior, Captain Manuel Gomez (George Lopez).
Gomez has taken a liking to Diego and helps him land some of the juicier, career-boosting cases. One of these cases just so happens to involve Diego’s childhood friend-turned-cartel-leader, Shotgun (David Castañeda, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”).
Coincidentally, Diego’s twin brother, Pedro (Castillo), had also chosen a dark path and purportedly ended up committing suicide. However, upon further investigation, Diego discovers that his twin was actually murdered while training to become the next incarnation of El Chicano. It’s pretty obvious what Diego does next.
‘El Chicano’ Sprints and Lags
Of course, Diego takes over where his late brother left off, donning El Chicano’s costume and taking to the mean, nocturnal streets of East LA in order to punish crime as he sees fit. From there, moviegoers are subjected to a plethora of shots of Castillo mean-mugging, brooding, and clenching his jaws.
In fact, throughout the entire movie, the normally talented actor’s range seems to be limited within the confines of one emotion: rage.
Unlike vigilante flicks of the past, this film lacks self-awareness of how over-the-top it is in its own seriousness. For the most part, it plays everything straight on the nose, with a modicum of soul offered up in brief tangents by Lopez.
Structurally speaking, “El Chicano” is an exercise in sprints, alternating with lags. With Bray at the helm, a seasoned, professional stuntman, you’d have thought that Bray’s action scenes would be spectacular, or at least mildly impressive.
Instead, we’re treated to highly chaotic action scenes where everything and everyone moves at warp speed. And much of the breakneck, disjointed action is also obscured by dark, muddled lighting, which causes confusion more than anything else.
Conversely, the supposedly “character-building” scenes, sandwiched in-between all of the violent action, are draggy. Instead of making you want to invest emotionally in the characters, the backstories seem lazily drawn and tiresome.
To the film’s credit, the tension between the two former boyhood friends is executed fairly well. However, the clichéd story of two kids growing up with one turning good and the other bad has little inflection. Why didn’t Diego try to save his former friend from a life of crime?
Diego exhibits no moral compassion, only pure anger.
An Infusion of Hispanic Culture
Identity is one of the film’s main themes, and you can see it manifested throughout. Bray has created a “genre entry”: a Hispanic superhero born out of the mean streets of East LA.
There are many Mesoamerican and Mexican references infused with East LA culture, including such things as placing pan (bread) on gravesites, Aztec civilization, lowriders, beautiful mural artwork, and even mention of the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots.
Unfortunately, all of this powerful cultural heritage doesn’t carry over to the film’s hackneyed characters. For the most part, Diego is simply reduced to a one-dimensional, chopper-riding killer. Meanwhile, the evil men he faces off against are little more than cardboard cutouts of the tired cartel gangster tropes we’ve all seen before.
A Hispanic superhero is sorely lacking in today’s entertainment industry, and you can tell that Bray had intended to fill that void with zeal and passion.
However, “El Chicano” feels like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Instead of braving new waters and perhaps showing a different approach to conflict resolution, this film only furthers reinforces negative stereotypes by showcasing ultraviolence as the sole answer to adversity.
As Captain Gomez says at a certain point in the film, “El Chicano, the ghetto Grim Reaper.” And that pretty much sums everything up.
Director: Ben Hernandez Bray
Starring: Raúl Castillo, George Lopez, David Castañeda, Adolfo Alvarez, Logan Arevalo, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Joe Carnahan
Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Release Date: May 3
Rated: 2 stars out of 5