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Review: Superhero flick ‘El Chicano,’ starring Raúl Castillo, has a disturbing undercurrent

Review: Superhero flick ‘El Chicano,’ starring Raúl Castillo, has a disturbing undercurrent
Raúl Castillo in the movie "El Chicano." (Briarcliff Entertainment)

In the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unprecedented box office dominance with a franchise in which no title characters are Latino, seasoned stuntman-turned-director Ben Hernandez Bray makes his brawny feature debut with “El Chicano,” an action-heavy film centered on a Mexican American superhero.

An East L.A. Batman — Batcave and all — who reclaims Aztec iconography as part of his shadowy disguise, El Chicano is a bloodthirsty vigilante, with different men under the mask, watching over the barrio and killing evildoers for generations. In the present, twin brothers Pedro (a former drug dealer) and Diego Hernandez (a police detective) embody the figure — each on his own terms.

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Perfectly cast, Raúl Castillo (“We the Animals”) plunges his sharp dagger of talent into the leading double role, effortlessly assured in both his rugged law enforcement facet and that of the motorcycle-riding outlaw clashing with a Mexican cartel. Spanglish dialogue rolls off Castillo’s tongue with utmost naturalness. Trailblazing Chicano comedian George López appears here in a rare serious role as Diego’s superior, Captain Gomez.

Reminiscent of Hollywood cop movies from the ’80s, when masculinity came only in a macho shade, but propelled by the fresh winds of inclusion, “El Chicano” stands as a solidly acted and technically accomplished spectacle, the latter likely the result of Hernandez Bray’s time delivering stunt magic behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator.

Ideologically, however, the screenplay, co-written by director and producer Joe Carnahan, seems adamant not only in distinctly asserting Chicano identity, but more troublingly in creating a marked separation between Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals, presented only as demonized, criminal, carnage-friendly, nationalist invaders (including famed Mexican actress Kate del Castillo as a deranged cartel leader).

Chicano characters appear eager to disassociate themselves from those south of the border to be in the good graces of mainstream American consciousness. That’s unfortunate, because rather than a narrative of division between U.S.-born Latinos and Latin Americans, the fight should be in defense of all oppressed people, not among us.

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‘El Chicano’

Rated: R, for strong violence and language throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: In general release

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