×

Film Review: ‘El Chicano’

This purported first Latino superhero movie is really more of a pedestrian grade-B cop thriller that lacks imagination.

Director:
Ben Hernandez Bray
With:
Raul Castillo, George Lopez, Aimee Garcia, Kate del Castillo, Jose Pablo Cantillo, David Castaneda, Marco Rodriguez, Sal Lopez, Marlene Forte, Roberto Garcia. (English, Spanish dialogue.)
Release Date:
May 3, 2019

Rated R  1 hour 47 minutes

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'El Chicano'

Reviewed at AMC Metreon, San Francisco, May 1, 2019. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 107 MIN.

Production: A Briarcliff Entertainment release and presentation of a WarParty Films and WarChest Prods. production. Producer: Joe Carnahan. Executive producers: Gianni Altobelli, Art Robinson, Blair Ward, Ron Schmeichel, Frank Grillo, Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Co-producer: Jason Hellmann.

Crew: Director: Ben Hernandez Bray. Screenplay: Joe Carnahan, Bray. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Juan Miguel Azpiroz. Editor: Jason Hellman. Music: Mitch Lee.

With: Raul Castillo, George Lopez, Aimee Garcia, Kate del Castillo, Jose Pablo Cantillo, David Castaneda, Marco Rodriguez, Sal Lopez, Marlene Forte, Roberto Garcia. (English, Spanish dialogue.)

More Film

  • Tracy Morgan Netflix stand-up special

    Film News Roundup: Tracy Morgan Joins Eddie Murphy's 'Coming 2 America'

    In today’s film news roundup, Tracy Morgan and Michael Rooker book roles in major movies, and Gravitas buys “Christmas Break-In.” CASTINGS More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct' Tracy Morgan has signed on to appear in Eddie Murphy’s “Coming 2 America” sequel as the brother of Lesley Jones’ character. “Hustle & [...]

  • Spider-Man Far From Home

    'Spider-Man: Far From Home' Gets Re-Release With New Scene

    Sony Pictures is re-releasing “Spider-Man: Far From Home” with a new action scene. Starting Aug. 29, a new extended cut, featuring four minutes of a never-before-seen action sequence, will be released in theaters in the United States and Canada. The film will also be available in IMAX and large formats in select locations. More Reviews [...]

  • Matthew Modine

    Supporters Back Matthew Modine After Clumsy Joke at SAG-AFTRA Meeting

    More than 100 women, including Ellen Barkin and Allison Janney, have voiced support for Matthew Modine’s campaign for SAG-AFTRA presidency, following a joke at a SAG-AFTRA meeting that some decried as misogynist. With voting set to conclude on Aug. 28, the campaigns have featured vitriolic attacks between supporters of Modine, secretary-treasurer Jane Austin and incumbent [...]

  • Lady Gaga

    Variety Earns 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Award Nominations

    Variety has received 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie award nominations for its coverage of the entertainment industry over the past year. The awards gala, which will take place at The Hilton Midtown in New York City on Oct. 30, celebrates publications that have demonstrated impressive investigative journalism, in addition to thoughtful digital and print design. [...]

  • WGA Agents Packaging Fight Placeholder

    Writers Guild Withdraws State Suit Against Agencies, Refiles in Federal Court

    The Writers Guild of America has withdrawn its state court suit against WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners alleging packaging fees are illegal and re-filed suit in federal court. The WGA also responded to antitrust claims brought against the guild by the three agencies. Those agency suits alleged that the WGA abused its power in [...]

  • Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart

    Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award

    British actor Tim Roth is to receive the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award in recognition of his “exceptional contribution to the art of film.” The ceremony at the Sarajevo Film Festival will be held on Tuesday. He will hold a masterclass on the same day. His first screen role was the lead in the controversial [...]

  • Isabelle Huppert, receives the Honorary Heart

    Isabelle Huppert on Fateful Encounters, the Nature of Acting and Judging a Good Script

    Celebrated actress Isabelle Huppert, speaking at the Sarajevo Film Festival on Sunday, looked back on her illustrious career in a candid discussion that touched on her acting, the many renowned directors with whom she’s worked, and the importance of dialogue. The festival honored Huppert with its Honorary Heart of Sarajevo award “in recognition of her [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content