El Chicano, a movie about an LAPD detective who becomes a masked neighborhood protector named El Chicano, opened wide this weekend. A handful of notes:
- El Chicano stars Raúl Castillo (he plays Pedro and Diego Hernandez, twin brothers: the former dies early, the latter eventually becomes El Chicano), George Lopez (he plays a captain in the LAPD), and David Castañeda (he plays Shotgun, the movie’s main bad guy and also a childhood friend of Diego). Cameos include Kate del Castillo (wonderful), Marco Rodriguez (his is the second-most enjoyable role in the movie; he plays an insightful older man who always seems to be one or two steps away from each of the movie’s most significant plot points), Emilio Rivera (a Serrano household favorite because of, among other things, his recurring role in Sons of Anarchy, which became a bigger role in a Sons of Anarchy spinoff called Mayans M.C.), and Jose Pablo Cantillo (a wonderful character actor who is maybe most famous for being the bad guy that Jason Statham kills at the end of Crank).
- In most instances, I would not bother to point out so many of the characters in a movie that I’m writing about, but I did so here as a way to get into the following point: El Chicano features an all-Latinx cast. And, I mean, listen: I don’t know a lot about a lot, but I know that it was cool to, for what I think might be only the third time in my life, sit in a movie theater and see the credits and realize that almost every actor listed has a last name that ends with a vowel or a Z or an S.
- (The other two times were at the end of Coco, a movie that was a masterpiece and I tell every single person I meet that it was a masterpiece and that they should watch it, and Miss Bala, a movie that was not a masterpiece but I still lie about in real life and say that it was good so that people will watch it.)
- El Chicano is billed as a superhero movie, and so that’s what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be something close to a Mexican American version of Batman—and I suppose, in a sense, it is that. Because there are similarities there. The character El Chicano, for example, does have a stylish method of transportation (an all-black motorcycle). And the character El Chicano, for another example, does have an origin story that involves the death of a relative (a twin brother, as it were). And the character El Chicano, for another example, does have a costume that he wears while he fights crime (a mask that covers the bottom half of his face; a hooded black jacket; and clothes with bulletproof armor stitched in). And the character El Chicano, for another example, does have a symbol that lets you know he’s on the hunt (a spray-painted portrait of himself). But the movie never quite gets around to feeling like a proper superhero movie. Mostly, it just feels like you’re watching a guy who gets so mad at the state of things that he puts on a new outfit and kills some people.
- The mythology behind the El Chicano character is a fun idea. The way it works is: Starting sometime around the 1940s, a person in East Los Angeles, a predominantly Mexican America area of the city, began dressing up and hunting bad guys. After a certain number of years, the person acting as El Chicano stepped aside and let a new person take over. And it just kept on like that for about 80 years. (The only people who know that El Chicano is a rotating cast of men are the ones who are chosen to be him. Everyone else believes him to be a boogeyman of sorts.) During the movie, we see Diego, a detective in the LAPD, become El Chicano. He takes over the role because his twin brother, Pedro, who was being groomed to become the new El Chicano, was killed.
- It takes more than an hour before Diego gets around to being El Chicano, and once he does he only uses his El Chicano–ness twice before the movie’s over. I wish we could’ve gotten a full movie of him being El Chicano.
- The single best scene in El Chicano happens separate of the superhero part. Diego and his partner go visit Shotgun because all of Shotgun’s former crew members were murdered and Diego thought it was suspicious that Shotgun wasn’t there. The two start off friendly with one another (they hug and smile and say nice things), but as soon as Diego establishes that he’s there as a detective, things turn thorny. They start talking in coded language to one another, each sentence feeling more and more like an open threat. It’s a great bit of tension, and the best proof that (1) Raúl Castillo can carry a movie if he’s given the kind of material to work from that’ll let him stretch his legs a bit, and (2) David Castañeda is going to be a bona fide movie star. He has a real gravity to him, and is able to move levels in a conversation without doing much beyond changing his posture or squinting his eyes.
- The most interesting part of El Chicano probably wasn’t even the masked vigilante part. The most interesting part was the subtext of the movie, which was that we’re approaching an upcoming war between Mexican nationals (in this case, as it is in most every case, represented by a drug cartel that wants to establish a foothold in America) and Mexican Americans (Diego as El Chicano is on the Mexican American side). Film critic Monica Castillo unpacked all the pieces here, writing that while the movie took noticeable care to allow a number of cultural hat-tips and high-fives, the “warm cultural recognition does not extend to the Mexican characters in the movie, many of whom are reduced to fear-mongering cartel tropes. Like in this year’s remake of Miss Bala, the Mexicans in this movie are the bad guys, the drug-running cartel members ruining it for the rest of us in the United States. It’s a subtle way of saying ‘we are not like them,’ which does nothing to undo the damage of hateful rhetoric aimed at Latinx and Latin American people.”
- The movie ends by allowing three things: (1) It allows Diego an amount of redemption because he gets to kill Shotgun, the man responsible for not only killing his twin brother, but also for convincing everyone that suicide was the cause of his death. (2) It allows for natural movement into a sequel, doing so with the film’s most purely visceral moment: Diego (as El Chicano) kills the first batch of cartel members sent to hunt him down. When he’s done, as the movie approaches its final frames, Kate del Castillo, playing an unnamed character, stands between the caskets of a father and a son from the cartel who have been killed. She gives a speech in Spanish about killing whoever is responsible for the deaths, removes a black veil from her face, stares into the camera, screams “PARA LA FAMILIA!” and then uses a machine gun to shoot a billion bullets in the air. She’s in El Chicano for, at most, two minutes, and is so fucking electric that if a sequel is green-lit, it will likely be because people are going to want to watch her go fucking murder-crazy in Part 2. And (3) it allows for the El Chicano universe to expand just a little, establishing that the police captain (George Lopez) not only knows that Diego is the new El Chicano, but also that he was a former confidante of the previous El Chicano.
El Chicano isn’t that great of a movie, but it’s ambitious and I am glad that it exists because it means we’re walking toward more movies that star members of the Latinx community. At the moment, that’s probably more important.