But Champion isn’t about his career in “the industry”—more of the long journey to. The talking-head documentary (which had a steady festival run in 2005) lays heavy focus on Trejo’s ins-and-outs with drug addiction, gangs, and prison. But as downright disturbing as some of his stories may be (he tells of his first handshake with heroin at the age of 12 with his Uncle Gilbert, whose life would be claimed by an overdose), the punch of the film comes in the form of redemption and a good heart.
Throughout Champion, Trejo shows no regret for his actions, and by the end, seems oblivious to the demons that have haunted his life. He is grateful for his problematic years, which guided him to help others, who in turn helped him. It’s a struggling user who was a production assistant on the Eric Roberts picture Runaway Train that results in Trejo’s by-chance venture into the film industry. On the set was Eddie Bunker (Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs; also an interviewee), who recognized Trejo from their San Quentin stints and offered him $350 to train Roberts in boxing, which Trejo was a state prison champion in.
Those who knew nothing of Trejo’s bouts with both welterweight boxers and himself may be at first allured by the movie star, thirsty for anecdotes on the business. We’re treated to a few brief stories of Desperado (and, for some reason, simultaneously subjected to Spy Kids clips), but by the end of the brisk 81 minutes, it’s not about the movies—though the commentary from Dennis Hopper, Steve Buscemi, Robert Rodriguez, and others benefits the film.
But, as fascinating of a story Champion told, it isn’t much more than a static memoir captured on video. If Trejo had an extended fanbase, this movie would have been limited to a special on E! The filmmakers seemed to have thrown the piece together, jumping from a question on the street to the answer on a couch. Interviewing the Champion is writer Cecily Gambrell, who on their walks in LA seems more interested in the number of steps she’s taking than her subject’s stories.
If only this film had the intimacy it deserves (where’s the footage of Trejo with his family?). It’s never quite as heartbreaking as it should be, with only a visit to his old San Quentin cell exposing Trejo’s otherwise guarded emotions. Champion is still an inspirational look into the life of a man who (and forget about his movie career) overcame addiction and fatal temptation—would’ve made a damn good autobiographical paperback.
Photographic Journey – San Quentin (1:52) is exactly what it sounds like: stills of Trejo’s trip back to San Quentin Prison.
Outtakes (4:55): Val Kilmer, Steve Buscemi, Eddie Bunker, and Robert Rodriguez share additional stories about Trejo. Worth a watch simply for Kilmer’s humorous tale.