City of Angels, my foot.
You won’t find many angels on the streets of East Los Angeles, especially after dark. This section of East L.A. is the habitat of drug dealers and gangsters—shadow-dwelling devils—when the sun goes down. And while plenty of good, ordinary folk live here, too, they’ve become inurred to the sounds of fights and gunfire and the occasional scream.
But some dark nights, according to an urban legend, another devil comes—a masked vigilante on a motorcycle and carrying an Aztec knife. And when El Chicano comes, death follows in his engine’s growling wake.
For twins Pedro and Diego when they were growing up, these streets were home. But as they got older, they took very different paths. Pedro never left those streets—until he went to prison, that is. He peddled dope and flashed guns and became one of those tough guys on the corner. It all caught up with him, of course, just like it always does. Shortly after he got out of the clink, he died. The police report said it was suicide.
“He was a bad guy who did drugs and shot people,” Diego says of his brother.
Diego’s own experience with those streets is much different these days. As an officer of the L.A.P.D., he patrols them and protects them. He catches bad guys: He doesn’t become them.
But when you’ve grown up with some of the same people you’re trying to bust, things can get interesting.
Diego and his partner, Det. Martinez, investigate what looks like a vicious gangland killing. A dozen people lie dead in a vacant warehouse. There’s just one survivor, and he’s not talking. But he does roll up his sleeve and reveals a tattoo that reads “Mito: 9-9-86.”
Diego recognizes it immediately. It’s Pedro’s nickname—and it’s the twins’ birthdate.
Diego should probably recuse himself from the case, given the obvious familial connection and all. Then again, who better to unpack the mystery than Pedro’s twin brother? But as Diego digs deeper and deeper, he discovers more and more clues to explore … and more evidence that Pedro might not have been just a wasted thug with a wasted life. Prison changed him, people say.
But when Diego investigates a storage facility his brother once rented, he discovers just how much.
Diego finds a whole secret lair—“like a ghetto Bat Cave,” Diego later says. It has a fancy motorcycle, bulletproof armor and … a mask. A mask that Diego dimly remembers from his childhood, the one he saw El Chicano wear.
“Gangsters find God out of fear of the devil,” an old man intones. But if Pedro hoped to be that devil, he’s gone now. He can’t wear El Chicano’s mask.
But maybe someone else could.
The movie suggests that El Chicano (less of a name and more of a title, as turns out) has been doing his vigilante work in Los Angeles for decades upon decades, taking down the worst of its villains and making the streets a little safer. We’ll have plenty of quibbles with his methods (as you might expect), but at least the underlying impulse is good. And we should note that at least one person tries to push Diego (who, naturally, becomes El Chicano) in a better direction. “Fight like this,” someone tells him, pointing to his badge. “Not like that.”
The movie’s also curiously patriotic. While we hear a historical reference or two about how the United States wrested California (and a good deal more) from Mexico (not the most honorable chapter in American history), both Pedro (in a journal) and Diego stress their Mexican-American heritage: They’re proud of their country as they are of their lineage.
El Chicano takes place in a deeply religious community, and we see plenty of nods to faith here.
Evidence of Catholicism is everywhere. We see paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary frequently (including one in what looks to be a small blue shrine). Characters wear crosses around their necks, and we see a priest conduct a funeral service (where the guests of honor lay in cross-badged coffins). Someone holds a rosary beside a gravesite. People cross themselves.
But all this Christian imagery mingles with references to the ancient Aztec Empire—a deeply religious civilization that revolved around its bloody ceremonial sacrifices.
Some of these references are startlingly explicit: The knife El Chicano uses resembles the stone ceremonial blades that Aztec priests used to cut the hearts out of their sacrificial victims. Neighborhood folklore strengthens the ties between the knife and the Aztecs, with at least one person suggesting that the knife draws in the life force of its victims. El Chicano’s mask (and some of Pedro’s drawings in his secret hideout) echo and update traditional Aztec art.
Sometimes these elements blend together (just as they do in Latino culture itself). Take the home of Susana, Diego’s mother. In one hallway, we see a large, prominent painting of the Virgin Mary hanging in the background. But a replica of the famous Aztec Sun Stone (festooned with depictions of Aztec gods, including the central image of the solar god Tonatiuh, whose tongue is a sacred knife). Susana also tells Diego that she thinks and mourns for Pedro often: She worries that if she stops doing so, Pedro might fade away forever—a belief that’s reflected in the Aztec-inspired Latino tradition of the Day of the Dead.
El Chicano tells a villain he’s killing that he’s sending the guy off to hell. Another bad guy tells El Chicano that “Even God wants this fight.” Someone threatens to steal another person’s soul. There’s a reference to a cult.
Diego’s girlfriend/wife walks up to him in a short T-shirt-like nighty, and the two smooch. We see lots of women at various nightclubs and parties wearing some revealing garb. They’re treated, frequently, as pleasure-dispensing accoutrements. Men and women dance sultrily together, and a guy makes a crude reference about seeking out female companionship.
El Chicano may have his own “Bat Cave,” according to Diego, but the vigilante certainly doesn’t adhere to the Dark Knight’s no-kill ethos.
We see this “hero” shoot and stab and slice aplenty here, killing loads of folks during his quest to neutralize the bad guys. Sometimes, he kills villains with premeditation, making short speeches as he pushes his sacrificial knife into the victim’s chest. Blood flies and spatters whenever he’s at work. He throws a grenade into an SUV, too, blowing a good chunk of it up.
But El Chicano is positively prim compared to the moments when the bad guys make kills. One man has most of his head blown off by a sniper: Blood and brain matter splatter the inside of the car he’s sitting in. Another man is shot in the neck while in a car (clearly the most hazardous place to be in El Chicano); blood pours down the panicked man’s neck before, ultimately, the severed artery starts spurting hemoglobin like a squeezed juice box. (We later see the man’s corpse at the morgue, a terrible-looking wound/scar lacerating the guy’s neck.)
Evildoers capture a handful of hostages, too: One is dead by the time the camera arrives on scene, dangling from a rope. A bad guy threatens the survivors (their necks are also noosed, but they’re standing on overturned buckets for now) with a running chain saw. One victim is eventually shot in the stomach several times before someone kicks the bucket underneath him away. (He survives, remarkably.)
Gunfights lead to fatalities. A government building is blown up, and we see the smoking, flaming aftermath. Diego/El Chicano suffers a number of bloody wounds from his police/vigilante work. He tries to patch himself up in the bathroom, and the white tiles are blotched in blood. Someone fantasizes about breaking someone’s arms off and sticking them where the proverbial sun doesn’t shine.
Scads of corpses decorate various scenes. Cars and other vehicles crash and explode. A guy is strangled. (We see his lifeless body in a couple of other scenes, too, including one that shows the bruises around his neck.) In flashback, we see a woman beat a child ferociously. (The actual blows are just out of the camera’s eye, but later we see the scars and hear someone joke about how he came to get them.) A woman slaps her adult son in the face. We hear about how two police officers were jumped by bad guys, necessitating trips to the hospital.
About 135 f-words and at least 40 s-words. We also hear plenty of other profanities including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “crap,” “h—,” “n—er,” “p—y” and “p-ssed.” God’s name is misused a half-dozen times, four with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused once.
We hear that Pedro sold drugs, and it’s suggested that plenty of other folks in the movie do the same. People drink at nightclubs and parties. Diego swills some pain-relieving hooch.
Capt. Gomez, Diego’s supervisor, and some FBI agents have a movie-long turf battle over a string of killings and who’s going to investigate them. Diego steals guns from the police’s evidence room to use during a lethal outing.
[Spoiler Warning] Obviously, El Chicano’s career as a lethal vigilante is troublesome, but it’s a storyline we’ve seen before. More troubling: Capt. Gomez knows about Diego’s secret life but does nothing about it. Sure, the captain advises Diego that he’s going about this hero stuff all wrong. But he turns a blind eye to several murders under his jurisdiction.
El Chicano is, essentially, a Latino-centric superhero story—with the central character being a curious cross between Zorro and The Punisher. Its makers say they couldn’t get backing from a major Hollywood studio because those studios were leery of a film with an almost entirely Latino cast.
“I kept telling them, ‘As a filmmaker and storyteller, this is everything I was exposed to my entire life,’” director Ben Hernandez Bray told The New York Times. “There wasn’t any Caucasian people living in my neighborhood. Not even police officers.”
‘Course, studios also might’ve shied away from this movie because it’s not particularly good.
Even more disappointing: The film is incredibly and gratuitously bloody and profane. El Chicano also feels false and inconsistent with each step, each word of dialogue, each slash of El Chicano’s bloody sacrificial knife.
Most of you probably hadn’t heard of El Chicano before you stumbled on this review. Trust me, you don’t need to see it, either.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.