When producing a documentary about an individual, there are basically two approaches to take. You can either let your subject tell his own story, or you can let everyone else talk about him. Joseph Eckardt’s documentary, “Champion,” wisely sticks to the first tactic, only allowing others to contribute when it fits the narrative. The end result is a surprising look into the life and mind of Danny Trejo.
Trejo, born in 1944, has appeared in over 80 films since 1985. Before that, he was a drug counselor for almost 20 years. Before THAT, he was a drug addict and armed robber doing time in San Quentin. After being sent to solitary confinement for his supposed role in causing a riot, he reached a turning point. As he puts it, “I said, ‘God, if you’re there, I’m gonna be all right. If you’re not, I’m screwed.'” Determined to remain clean and make his parole, he took a job as a drug counselor. One fateful night, one of his clients called him, desperate for help, begging Trejo to come down to his job. Trejo obliged; the client was a PA on the set of “Runaway Train.” The director saw him and gave him a job teaching boxing to Eric Roberts. The rest, as they say, is history.
Trejo has a very down-to-earth way of speaking, full of energy and passion. He is well aware of his history and takes full responsibility, a refreshing change from today’s prevalence of victims and those crying, “It wasn’t my fault.” As he tells his story, edited together from many different interviews, including one in which he re-visits his old cell at San Quentin, he owns every piece of his past, good and bad. Yet, despite a youth filled with crime and drugs, he remains ultimately positive and humble about his present situation. He remains committed to counseling drug addicts, speaking at prisons and halfway houses, trying to use his own history as an example to others. Acting even comes second to these efforts. In fact, he views his acting as a great “hook” to get him into the lives of people who need his help.
The best aspect of this film is watching Trejo speak, walk, and visit his old haunts with over 30 years of perspective behind him. There is no voice-over narration or intrusion by the filmmakers into the narrative. The film isn’t just about him, it IS him. When other Hollywood notables appear, it is only to enhance the story. Their presence is kept to an absolute minimum, providing enough color to richen without overwhelming.
“Champion” is a fascinating, inspiring, and funny look into the life of someone as unlike a “typical” Hollywood celebrity as you can get. He doesn’t see his life’s purpose in acting; he sees it in helping others. “Every good thing in my life came as a direct result of helping other people,” he says. And he shows no signs of stopping, either, which can only mean more good things in store for Danny Trejo.