2019, R, 107 min. Directed by Ben Hernandez Bray. Starring Raúl Castillo, David Castañeda, George Lopez, Aimee Garcia, Emilio Rivera, Kate del Castillo.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., May 10, 2019
While he may not be a household name, Joe Carnahan is a favorite among genre fans. With cult classics like The Grey and Smokin’ Aces on his résumé, Carnahan has carved out a niche for himself as a writer-director who delivers blockbuster-caliber genre fare at Redbox price tags. On paper, then, there’s a lot to like about him teaming with his longtime stunt coordinator Bray on an action movie built around Latinx performers. Unfortunately, El Chicano is far from the sleeper action movie we all hoped it might be.
Even by police standards, Diego (Castillo) has a strong sense of right and wrong. Not only is he driven to clean up the streets of Los Angeles, but he’s also obsessed with correcting the mistakes of his brother Pablo, a former drug dealer who died after years in prison. But when a warehouse worth of hired muscle – hired muscle with Pablo’s nickname and birthdate tattooed on their arms – end up slaughtered, Diego finds himself trying to outrun both the ghost of his late brother and the long reach of Shotgun (Castañeda), a childhood friend who has become one of the most dominant faces of organized crime in all of Los Angeles.
Much of the marketing for El Chicano made the film look like the Los Angeles answer to The Punisher, but the film’s first hour is spent creating an engaging mythology for the character. Diego finds copies of The Art of War and books on the French Revolution among his brother’s belongings; he also finds journals that position El Chicano’s violence as an act of decolonization. Pablo has come to view the drug cartels as an invading force. As a “Mexican-AMERICAN” – with the second word always fully capitalized in his notes – he believes he must fight for his homeland, much like the original Los Angelenos did during the Mexican-American War.
The idea of a superhero movie that sits at an intersection of identities – Mexican, American, and Mexican American – is certainly intriguing, and for a while, the film seems to be gearing up for a direct conflict between these identities. Then the shooting starts in earnest. Bray may have served as the stunt coordinator on several of co-writer Carnahan’s previous films, but here the action is maddeningly tough to follow. Clarity is sacrificed in favor of endless edits, turning key set-pieces into incomprehensible messes. As the film devolves into a series of gunfights, the potential for it to find its own sense of style and rhythm is quickly washed away. Netflix has been putting together better fight cinematography than this for years.
El Chicano is also a surprising miss from Raúl Castillo, the actor tasked with being the face of this would-be franchise. His talent as a performer is above reproach – his portrayal of the abusive father in We the Animals was one of the best performances of 2018 – but here he comes across as stiff and humorless in a movie that needed something to offset its own sense of gravity. It seems unfair to suggest that El Chicano could have overcome its shortcomings with a more dynamic central performance, but when your lead actor doesn’t seem to be having any fun in an action movie, there’s not much left for audiences to cling to. Genre fans will need to look elsewhere for their gunslinger fix.