El Chicano is being billed as the first Latinx superhero film, and while it’s an understandable way to market the movie, this feels like a spoiler — and also somehow inaccurate. For starters, the superhero stuff doesn’t really start until we’re past the halfway point of the movie, which is a slightly nerdier way of saying that I wish I hadn’t known in advance that the plot was headed in that direction. Watching and waiting for something specific to happen is so much less interesting than watching and wondering what might happen.
Also, can we really call El Chicano a superhero in the traditional sense? He’s not a cartoonish, indestructible figure with magic powers from the beyond. He’s more of an enraged vigilante determined to mow down his nemeses. I realize that concept — an ordinary guy with an extraordinary chip on his shoulder — also fits Batman, and we can think of El Chicano as an East Los Angeles variation on Bruce Wayne during that brief interregnum when he was wearing a mask but hadn’t gone full Bat suit. Now add guns. Lots of guns. And knives. And snapped necks. This guy kills, and bleeds, and then he kills some more. El Chicano is extreme grimdark — a brooding orgy of slaughter — and the figure at its center becomes more antihero than superhero as the movie proceeds.
But the film is occasionally riveting. Our protagonist is Diego (Raúl Castillo), a melancholy but driven LAPD officer whose twin brother Pedro recently committed suicide (or so we’re told) and whose childhood pal Shotgun (David Castañeda) is now a local druglord. When he’s called on to investigate recent gang murders with his new partner (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a Chicago transplant, Diego gets word that his brother might not have killed himself after all, and begins to suspect that his death might be connected to a notorious Mexican cartel’s attempts to take over the Los Angeles underworld.
Digging into Pedro’s things and scouring his own memories, Diego starts to find himself haunted by the figure of a masked man riding a motorcycle, wielding an ancient Aztec blade, and dropping ominous graffiti all over the neighborhood. What was his brother on to? And what about this secret compartment in the creepy storage unit he left behind? There is a brief period around the middle of El Chicano when it feels like it might turn into a horror flick, and it’s an idea that I wish more superhero and superhero-adjacent movies would utilize: the notion that power, be it of earthly or otherworldly origin, is a genuinely scary, surreal thing, and that the mysterious alter ego is a figure of both compulsive menace and noble promise. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films did this well, and El Chicano is clearly borrowing a page from them. But Nolan was trying to find a way to reinvent a persona that had long been cliché. El Chicano director Ben Hernandez Bray is amping up the violence, the profanity, and the overarching sense of sadness in an effort to establish a new character.
In other words, I don’t foresee an incoming wave of El Chicano lunchboxes, or a Netflix cartoon spinoff. This is a nasty, brutal little movie, more in the vein of a grindhouse revenge flick than anything else. But it’s effectively done: Bray paints a world of such despair and aggression that it really does feel like only some sort of mythical intervention can save it. And all that extreme violence — this is a movie where the good guy brandishes multiple machine guns and has no qualms about plunging daggers into his victims — never feels particularly cheap, or opportunistic; it’s organic to the chaotic, dead-end milieu. It also helps undercut the predictability of the overall origin-story template: We sense that any of these characters might die at any moment.
I do wish the film had offered some real character shading: As Diego, Castillo basically has two speeds: tense and intense. We don’t see much of Pedro at all, so despite our hero’s rage at the loss of his twin, the hurt never quite comes through for us. Meanwhile, brief, touching interludes with both Diego’s mom and his wife made me wish we could see more of them, as examples of the world that he’s fighting for. But maybe that would puncture the darkness too much. El Chicano is often exciting, but don’t expect to leave the theater riding an action movie high.