A cop thriller promoted as the first Latino superhero movie, “El Chicano” would seem to be arriving at the right time, with “Avengers: Endgame” having made the genre appear fail-proof and “Black Panther” recently proving that an ethnocentric tilt is among the paths to success. But Ben Hernandez Bray’s long-aborning debut feature, co-written with producer Joe Carnahan, turns out to be a pretty weak kickoff to a would-be franchise. It’s hardly fair to expect the production values of those top-shelf major studio efforts, but the problem here isn’t the fairly apparent budgetary limits — it’s the limitations of style and imagination.
Launching on 600 screens nationwide, “El Chicano” isn’t much distinguished by the fact that our less-than-super police hero sometimes wears an identity-hiding mask. Nevertheless, if the box office cooperates, the boilerplate origin story could at least lead to sequels that hopefully take greater risks and demonstrate more personality.
Diego Hernandez (Raul Castillo) is an LAPD detective whose feet landed firmly on the right side of the law as a reaction to the different path of twin brother Pedro, whose criminal deeds led to prison and an apparent post-release suicide. Very strangely indeed, their birthdates are seen imprinted on the bodies of a whole slew of gangbangers found executed in an abandoned building. Captain Gomez (George Lopez) assigns Diego to investigate, along with his partner Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo), the kind of mouthy greenhorn fated not to live long in pulp tales like this.
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The men found killed weren’t the type that many would miss, but it does seem odd that their loss occasions no grief or rage from their boss Shotgun (David Castaneda), a childhood friend of Diego’s turned high-rolling criminal. Sniffing around, the cops soon suss that Shotgun might’ve willingly ditched his own crew to join a new crime syndicate involving a Mexican drug cartel kingpin (Sal Lopez) and his son (Roberto Garcia, aka rapper Mr. Criminal).
Diego also realizes that before his brother met a murky fate, he may have had a moral turnaround and adopted the guise of El Chicano. That phantom is, we’re told, an East L.A. “urban legend” dating back to the 1940s, who uses his Aztec knife, motorcycle and ceremonial mask to deliver harsh justice to evildoers in the barrio. A bloodbath or two later, it’s Diego who’s suiting up for the role.
Though some story elements aren’t cleanly articulated (for instance, what happened to Pedro, or if he’s even actually dead), the narrative is mostly too simple. The good guys in blue yell strained, hard-boiled expletive-laced dialogue at each other; the bad guys are bad without being at all interesting; subsidiary roles like the protagonist’s wife (Aimee Garcia) and mother (a hammy Marlene Forte) are so generically written they scarcely merit character names.
Bray’s primary career to date has been as a stunt performer and coordinator, so it’s surprising that the action is too messily staged to have much visceral impact. Taking place mostly at night, the movie aims for a sleek minimalism, yet too often its look seems simply under-detailed and underpopulated. Idiosyncratic ideas, wit and acting flourishes could have ameliorated those shortcoming. But “El Chicano” has few of those elements, and almost no sense of humor.
The result is very much a B-movie, in the sense that it recycles familiar genre cliches sans frills on a budget; the “superhero” selling point feels more opportunistic than earned. It’s not so much that El Chicano lacks superpowers, it’s that his movie takes itself too seriously and prizes relative realism over fantasy, without making any aspect memorable. The performers are adequate, but no one stands out, nor do they seem to be having much fun. The script ladles out some well-meaning if heavy-handed messages of Latino pride and history (though some of its chest-thumping could be seen as providing fodder for Trumpian paranoia). The East L.A. shown here, plagued by gangs and violence, doesn’t feel like a tangible place, let alone a community — perhaps partly because the film was actually shot in Canada. The fact that Mitch Lee’s original score underlines every tiny emotional cue only tends to expose how little emotion “El Chicano” elicits.