'El Chicano': Film Review

El Chicano-Publicity Still 1-H 2019
Briarcliff Entertainment
Won't cause Marvel to lose any sleep, but effective nonetheless.

A Latino detective turns into a masked vigilante in Ben Hernandez Bray's violent thriller set in East Los Angeles.

El Chicano is being referred to as the first Latino superhero movie, but that's a bit of a stretch. Yes, the main character dons a mask and doles out justice. But the film, marking Ben Hernandez Bray's directorial debut, is mainly a violent police procedural and vigilante drama that succeeds well enough on those terms. It's also notable for its almost entirely Latino cast and deep immersion into East Los Angeles culture. The pic certainly looks authentic, despite the fact that it was largely shot in Calgary.

The central character is L.A. detective Diego Hernandez (Raul Castillo, We the Animals, Unsane), who finds himself in the thick of things while investigating the murders of gang members apparently committed by a Mexican cartel. The case becomes personal when he becomes aware of its connections to his twin brother Pedro (Castillo, again), who recently committed suicide after a lengthy prison stint for crimes he took part in when he was involved with a gang.

To work on the case, Diego is assigned a new partner, Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo), about whom he's less than thrilled. He complains to his captain (George Lopez, very effective in a rare non-comedic role) that Martinez is a "Midwestern Mexican" who doesn't know enough about the local scene.

The case eventually leads the two detectives to violent confrontations with Shotgun (David Castaneda), a former childhood friend of Diego who has become a local crime kingpin, and El Gallo (Sal Lopez), the brutal head of the cartel who has ambitious plans to expand its presence in L.A.

The film's title refers to a mythical masked figure who has been a presence in the area for decades, doling out strict and often lethal punishment to evil forces oppressing the local population. As he digs deeper into the case, Diego begins to suspect that his brother may once have assumed the role of El Chicano himself. Later, when he becomes frustrated by the legal constraints placed on him by his position, he decides to follow in his brother's costumed vigilante footsteps.

The screenplay, co-written by Bray and Joe Carnahan (The Grey, The A-Team), is, like most of the latter's work, hard-edged and macho in the extreme. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in pungency, with the profanity-laden dialogue frequently proving memorable in its terse vulgarity. Bray, a veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator with hundreds of movies to his credit, stages the action sequences with impressive efficiency, with the graphic violence often unexpected and jolting in its impact.

Castillo's charismatic performance in the lead role carries much of the film's weight, but the rest of the ensemble provides solid support. Among those who make vivid impressions are Marlene Forte (Real Women Have Curves) as the Hernandez brothers' strong-willed mother and Aimee Garcia (Lucifer) as Diego's teacher-wife, who has dedicated herself to serving the people of her community.

The production's obvious low-budget limitations sometimes blunt the pic's effectiveness, and Diego's eventual transformation into the titular figure doesn't pack the mythic punch that would seem necessary to launch a franchise. That's clearly the intention, since the film ends with a sequel all but promised. It will be interesting to see if the desire of Latino audiences to see themselves represented onscreen will be enough to propel El Chicano to the cultural impact to which it aspires.

Production company: WarParty Films
Distributor: Briarcliff Entertainment
Cast: Raul Castillo, Aimee Garcia, Jose Pablo Cantillo, David Castaneda, Marco Rodriguez, Sal Lopez, Marlene Forte, Kate Del Castillo, George Lopez
Director: Ben Hernandez Bray
Screenwriters: Ben Hernandez Bray, Joe Carnahan
Producer: Joe Carnahan
Executive producers: Gianni Altobelli, Art Robinson, Blair Ward, Ron Schmeichel, Frank Grillo, Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Director of photography: Juan Miguel Azpiroz
Production designer: Amy A. Brewster
Editor: Jason Hellmann
Composer: Mitch Lee
Costume designer: Jayne Mansbridge

Rated R, 107 minutes