' ' Cinema Romantico: The Ultimate Danny Trejo Moment

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Ultimate Danny Trejo Moment

It is perhaps the most pivotal moment in “Heat”, Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece positively brimming with pivotal moments. Our quartet of hella good bank robbers have just been made by the L.A. police and now must decide whether they should walk away or stay and take the score. Mann shoots the sequence almost exclusively in close-ups and medium shots of three of the four men, Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro), the man in charge, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) and Michael Churrido (Tom Sizemore). It all hangs in the balance, their livelihood and their lives. Chris needs the money (“the bank is worth the risk”). For Michael, “the action is the juice”. Neil is their brother in arms. Thus, he will not dissent. But wait……what about the fourth man of the group? The man literally billed in the credits as……Trejo? What does he want to do?

Image from And So It Begins....
Danny Trejo kind of comes across as random and at ease as Michael Mann does meticulous and self-serious. Mann, after all, spent his formative years earning an undergraduate degree in English at Wisconsin and a graduate degree from the London Film School. Danny Trejo, on the other hand, spent his formative years in and out of prisons and boxing at freaking San Quentin. Thus, it goes without saying that these two men view the cinema in different lights. In an interview Mann once indicated “I wasn't really interested in cinema until I saw 'Dr. Strangelove', alongside a set of films by F.W. Murnau and G.W. Pabst for a college course.” In an interview Trejo once relayed that the film “Runaway Train” was “…the first time I’d been on a movie set. It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen because all these youngsters were dressed like little convicts and I kept smearing their tattoos. … A guy came up to me and said, ‘Can you act like a convict?’ I said, ‘I’ve been in every penitentiary in the State of California, I’ll give it a shot.’”

I’ll give it a shot. That he did, and he’s done it well. He never really doesn’t play Danny Trejo. He knows it, he’s okay with it, and it’s what Michael Mann plays straight to by literally naming the character “Trejo”. And Trejo himself seems very in tune to and grateful for his good fortune. He had a rough life, pulled himself together, showed up on a movie set, and stumbled into Hollywood, ultimately choosing to remain apart from so many in the business with egos and chips on their shoulders and an insatiable need to be taken more seriously.

Which brings me back to that scene in “Heat.” Everything Michael Mann does comes armed with intent, and so while it might appear as if Mann just didn’t have proper coverage or didn’t get a good close-up of Trejo, it’s actually the exact opposite. He sticks to single shots of Neil and Chris and Michael because their decision to stay and take the bank down is everything, a moment when who they are as MEN hangs in the balance. Then, finally, Neil turns to Trejo, who has been there all along, off to the side, cooling his heels, not a care in the world. Neil wonders if he’s in too. “Yeah,” he says with all the excitement of a man asking for butter on his toast. “Sure.”

Trejo. He’s just happy to be there.


Alex Withrow said...

Love this!

"Yeah sure." Perfect.

"...he says with all the excitement of a man asking for butter on his toast." Jesus man, you're priceless.

Nick Prigge said...

As always, your kindness humbles me. Your post, man! Your post - like so many of your posts do - made me realize I'd always wanted to write about that scene and spurred me to action.