Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Danny Trejo's Best And Worst Onscreen Performances

In the pantheon of popular movie stars, few have had as improbable a rise to the top as Danny Trejo. The California native had a rough childhood in which drugs were introduced to him early. According to the BBC, he spent most of the 1960s in and out of jail. However, it was his time at the infamous San Quentin state prison that earned him a reputation as a championship boxer as well as his trademark "tough guy" look.

He did eventually turn things around and became a drug counselor by the 1980s. When a patient asked for his support in fighting his addiction on the set of the movie "Runaway Train," he showed up to set and quickly caught the attention of writer Edward Bunker, who asked him to help train the cast in boxing as well as looking like actual prisoners.

The rest, as they say, is history.

He parlayed that little job on a set into a lucrative career that's spanned decades. He's been in projects that are both high-brow as well as low-budget and downright silly. The man never forgot where he came from and therefore doesn't turn down work if he's privileged enough to have it offered to him.

As a result, he's left a trail of both top-quality features as well as downright duds in his wake. To better understand this puzzling and enigmatic figure, it's worth taking a look at both his best and worst movie roles, based on Rotten Tomatoes audience scores.

Best: All About The Money (2017)

When three friends find themselves hopelessly, comically and desperately out of luck in "All About The Money," they hatch a not-so-brilliant scheme to go to Colombia in the hopes of capturing the country's leading drug lord and collecting the $25 million bounty on his head.

As if the plan doesn't sound harebrained enough, they go mouthing off about their scheme in a bar where Trejo's character, Luis Diego, happens to be. He kidnaps the loudest of the bunch, Kurt (Casper Van Dien), and brings him directly to the drug lord, where he's held prisoner so that they can capitalize on his ideas about the drug trade. With Diego keeping their friend thoroughly under his menacing thumb, it's up to his two equally unqualified partners (Eddie Griffin and director Blake Freeman) to save the day and get paid.

Trejo spends most of his time in this movie doing what he does best, being charismatically threatening and scaring the absolute hell out of this bumbling gringo who got himself in way over his head after his more comfortable life in the States got turned upside down. This role works because he's not the main crime boss — that's too predictable for a man of his presence. Instead, he gets to be the streetwise and ruthless cartel criminal. All of his time as an actor prepared him for this exact role and he delivers in a way only Trejo can.

Worst: Hope Lost (2015)

Danny Trejo gets a lot of mileage in his career out of the fact that he is able to portray a very villainous and dangerous presence. Unfortunately, when that presence is unleashed on a movie that doesn't counterbalance it with some kind of heroics or "good guy," it can lead the audience down a depressing rabbit hole of awfulness. Such is the case with the gritty 2015 film "Hope Lost."

The plot focuses on a young woman who is tricked into accompanying a man to Rome thinking it's her big break into show business. Unfortunately, he instead sells her into prostitution, creating a life that she's simply unable to escape from. This is thanks in large part to Trejo, who plays her pimp's security and the man tasked with making sure she doesn't leave her post or scamper off with a good Samaritan.

Eventually, things in the woman's life take a turn for the worst when she's somehow sent down an even more grim underworld rabbit hole: Her pimp sells her to a person whose intention is to torture her and another young woman and then murder at least one of them on-camera.

Even horror fans don't always like a film that's depressing through and through, and Trejo's ability to make things that much more hopeless for the protagonist doesn't help.

Best: Heat (1995)

While director Michael Mann's modern classic "Heat" is known for its infamous shootout scene, it's actually Trejo's character that acts as the catalyst for some of the movie's most shocking events to unfold.

The plot focuses on a top-quality bank robbery team that's operating in Los Angeles. Trejo's character is aptly named Trejo, and he's one of two enforcers with the group on a job that goes south when the other enforcer, Waingro (Kevin Gage), goes a little rogue and needlessly murders a security guard.

With the police on their tail, the team decides to take on one last major score. However, before it goes down, Trejo spots a police tail and realizes that he can't join his cohorts without leading the cops right to them. As a result, he's not present for the massive shootout that takes place when the cops are tipped off to the bank robbery.

Thinking he'd been betrayed, the group's leader, McCauley (Robert De Niro), goes to Trejo's house for revenge only to find him mortally wounded and his wife dead. Trejo spills the beans on who actually betrayed him and left him for dead. In a heartbreaking scene masterfully played by a man who got his start as a prison boxing consultant, Trejo asks his friend to mercy kill him rather than face the hospital, police and a prolonged death without his wife.

Worst: L.A. Slasher (2015)

For all of his tough-guy prowess, Trejo doesn't always find success in the horror genre, with a few key exceptions. However, "L.A. Slasher" is not one of those exceptions.

In this film, Trejo plays a drug dealer who finds out his partner is actually a cop. None of that ends up mattering, though, because they're both essentially just cannon fodder for the ruthless "slasher" that's terrorizing the Los Angeles reality TV and young starlet scene.

The film follows the slasher as he manifests his utter disdain for reality TV stars into a viral murder spree that has the whole city debating whether or not he's a criminal or a gory vigilante punishing crimes of opulence, excess and a lack of talent.

Trejo doesn't have much to do in this movie, and that's because no one really does. In its ham-fisted attempts at satire, the film doesn't really have anything to say about America's relationship with fame other than "reality stars are bad people."

As a result, the audience isn't asked to root for any of the slasher's victims. Instead, they're meant to cheer on their torture and deaths. While that may sound like an over-the-top B-movie, the gimmick gets old quick in the absence of any plot or overall message. Five minutes into "L.A. Slasher," long before talented actors like Trejo, Dave Bautista and more show up, the film has already made its point 10 times over.

Best: Strike One (2014)

While Trejo has demonstrated in other films that he's capable of more range than a relatively untrained actor might have, he's not exactly dipping into his imagination in this 2014 crime drama. Trejo plays Manny Garcia, a bigwig in a neighborhood that's largely controlled by a local gang. He's even gotten out of the gang life a bit to pursue a career in acting — meaning it's essentially a role he could do in his sleep.

Nevertheless, Trejo brings it and then some in "Strike One." The film focuses on Garcia's son, who is growing up in the same neighborhood as his father and finds himself at a crossroads between doing something more with his life, or finding the brotherhood his father did in the gang. However, when a job goes south for Garcia and his son gets arrested over it, suddenly the people around the boy are the ones pulling the strings in his life.

As mentioned, the role doesn't necessarily require Trejo to go outside his comfort zone. In some ways, it's downright autobiographical. But the actor puts on a stunning performance that probably no one else on this planet was more qualified for.

Trejo is at his best when he's taking his incredibly interesting past and using it to create worthwhile art. No project he's done showcases that more than "Strike One."

Worst: The Cloth (2013)

"The Cloth" offers viewers a pretty interesting premise that unfortunately doesn't hold water and isn't helped by its handful of woefully bad actors and special effects.

The film focuses on a secret society started by the Roman Catholic Church called, you guessed it, The Cloth. They're tasked with not only handling the rising tide of exorcisms and demonic possession happening on Earth, but they're supposed to innovate the way it's done beyond tying a woman to a bed, splashing her with holy water, saying some prayers and hoping for the best.

Somewhere along the line, The Cloth found a way to put the power of exorcism into weapons, mostly guns, so that dispatching a demon is as easy as pointing and shooting. So when a new evil emerges on Earth, veteran Cloth member Father Connelly (Trejo) enlists the help of a non-believer — the explanation being that only non-believers can craft these weapons. Although that doesn't quite make sense, and watching the film's main protagonist see literal demons and still not believe in God is a little grating, "The Cloth" forges ahead anyway.

Trejo is underutilized in this movie, which is upsetting because he's capable of giving the kind of powerhouse performance that "The Cloth" was sorely lacking. It's unclear if more of him could have saved a film that's already rife with problems, but it certainly couldn't have hurt.

Best: Wish Man (2019)

Not all roles need to be particularly meaty for a skilled enough actor to make an impact. Such is the case with Trejo in the film "Wish Man."

Based on the life of Frank Shankwitz, better known as the creator of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the story follows the life of a highway patrolman who is injured in an accident. Part of his recovery sees him take a terminally ill boy on a tour of the police station, which sets him down a road that ultimately leads to the creation of the very real foundation.

The story covers a lot of ground in Frank's life, including his strained parental relationship and youth. When he was young, Frank and his mom struggled to make ends meet. He had to work as a dishwasher at a local restaurant for his incredibly unfair, abusive boss, played by Trejo.

At one point, Frank is berated by his boss over something that wasn't his fault and manages to get himself fired. If that wasn't bad enough, he also gets the cook he was working with fired, earning him a beating from the man, much to the indifference of Trejo's character.

The role isn't particularly heavy, and Trejo doesn't get nearly as much to do in this ultimately feel-good story as he does in other movies. But his ability to show no sympathy, even to a desperate kid, really raises the stakes of the character and helps illustrate the kind of people who were standing in Frank's way all his life.

Worst: Zombie Hunter (2013)

"Zombie Hunter" sees Danny Trejo playing a priest who runs a colony of survivors during a zombie apocalypse. He keeps them alive through sheer toughness and an ability to handle any number of the undead that may darken their doorstep. It may sound like the perfect vehicle for a man like Trejo, but sadly the film misses its mark by being too hammy and thinking it's in on its own joke when it's really not.

When a young man (Martin Copping) who lost his wife and daughter makes his way to a survivalist camp, he learns that the group, led by Trejo's Jesus character, has a plan to escape in an airplane at a nearby air strip. He joins them as zombies attack and then they manage to fight off just enough of the undead to survive.

It's a really bland paint-by-numbers zombie flick that fails to earn its place as a unique entry into the already oversaturated zombie genre. Sure it's fun to see Trejo engage in a violent cacophony of mayhem with an axe on a horde of zombies, but to what end? The film doesn't have anything to say and nothing new to present. While Trejo finds himself at home in this B-movie-level gore fest, everyone from co-stars to production don't seem to have a grip on what kind of movie they're making.

Once again, it's not Trejo's fault that this movie ended up being a dud. In fact, if anyone comes close to saving it, it's him.

Best: Grindhouse (2007)

Sometimes characters just make sense for certain stories, even if no one is yet asking for those stories. Such is the case with Danny Trejo's Machete character in the "Grindhouse" double feature. Although the character originally appeared in the Robert Rodriguez-directed film "Spy Kids," "Grindhouse" is where he first came to life in all his bloody glory.

The film is designed to feel like an old-time B-horror double feature, showing "Death Proof" and "Planet Terror" back-to-back. To complete the experience, "Grindhouse" even features fake trailers for upcoming movies. One of those movies is "Machete," featuring Danny Trejo as a federale who is tasked with assassinating a U.S. Senator for an underworld crime boss. However, when Machete gets betrayed, he goes on a mission to prove that his former employer had "messed with the wrong Mexican."

The film portrays itself to be a gritty, violent and downright silly "Mexploitation" film. Yet Trejo was so perfect for it that the film was eventually made in 2010 and spawned the subsequent sequel "Machete Kills."

Trejo has had difficulty escaping his old persona of a violent prisoner. While the character of Machete didn't do much to help with that image, it did allow him to take back some power and reclaim it as his own. It also provided him with a much-needed and well-deserved starring role. Sure, being a part of a fake trailer is an odd way to secure one's place in Hollywood, but so is everything else about Trejo's career.

Worst: Toxic (2010)

"Toxic" doesn't exactly benefit from Trejo's presence, but the man simply never turns down work.

The plot focuses on a woman who is experiencing mental health issues as a result of trauma suffered after the death of her brother in their youth. The exact circumstances are kept vague, but she finds herself the subject of an almost supernatural curse that affects the lives of everyone with the misfortune to cross her path, including a crime boss, a stripper, two hitmen and others. One of those hitmen is Trejo, who rolls into town investigating a suicide at a local bar. When he asks a few too many questions, a shootout occurs and the young woman finds herself adopting the persona of Trejo's partner.

Trejo doesn't get a lot to do in this picture, and even his gritty charm in the face of danger isn't enough to pull this mess of a movie into the "good" category. This isn't Trejo's fault, but at the same time, he's the one who signed onto a project that is simply incoherent.