American Me

1992, Movie, R, 119 mins

Review

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An ambitious drama about gang warfare and the culture of violence, AMERICAN ME is nothing if not earnest. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean it's a particularly successful film; for every bluntly powerful moment, there's another that's crude and obvious, sometimes excruciatingly so.

Raised in the East Los Angeles barrio, Santana Montoya (Edward James Olmos) ignores his parents' attempts to make him into a citizen of the mainstream United States, a culture from which they themselves have been excluded--a point that isn't lost on their angry son. Santana finds his identity in a gang, formed with his friends Mundo (Pepe Serna) and JD (William Forsythe), a white boy who's adopted the Latino street culture as his own and is ready to kill anyone who has a problem with it. They spend years together in juvenile hall and, later, in prison, completing their criminal educations and hatching an ambitious plan to form a large-scale operation that will command respect both within and outside prison walls. They are all too successful.

Members of the gang drift in and out of prison, dealing drugs, murdering anyone who opposes them and protecting one another from the police and other gangs. Santana becomes a near mythical figure until, during a brief sojourn out from behind bars, he falls in love with Julie (Evelina Fernandez), whom he meets at a neighborhood party--it's an awkward relationship that's bound to end badly. Julie despises what drugs and guns and gangs have done to the Latino community, and she's unable to ignore Santana's part in its destruction; Santana is too brutalized by a lifetime in prison to forge a conventional, non-exploitative connection with a woman. But Julie forces him to reconsider the life he's made for himself, and when he goes back to prison, they continue to correspond. Perceived as a sign of weakness, this relationship dooms Santana, who's stabbed to death outside his cell by members of a rival prison gang.

The directorial debut of actor Edward James Olmos, probably best known for his role as enigmatic Lieutenant Martin Castillo on TV's long-running "Miami Vice" series, AMERICAN ME is earnest, sprawling and awkward. But there's no denying the intensity of feeling that drives it, and though it can't be called an unqualified success, the film is forthright and sometimes surprisingly moving. It gets off to a bad start, with the imprisoned Santana reading what will be his last letter to Julie. Full of sing-song rhyming slang and painful platitudes, Santana's voiceover doesn't convince you that this is a character to whom you want to listen for the better part of two hours. Even worse, Julie's voice joins in, and her plaintive whine ("It's as though you were two people...") is truly grating. Fortunately, the movie then begins to tell Santana's story, starting with the story of his parents, Pedro (Sal Lopez) and Esperanza (Vira Montes) and the 1943 zoot-suit riot. The period sets look like what they are--sets--but at least we're out of Santana's head and into a world of color and action. Fifty years of Hispanic-American history proceeds to unfold through the prism of Santana's life, and AMERICAN ME skips back and forth between the barrio, juvenile hall and various prisons as he comes of age in a culture that celebrates strength, machismo, respect and gang loyalty at the expense of other, more conventional virtues.

AMERICAN ME covers a lot of familiar ground, especially as it chronicles Santana's early years. But individual scenes transcend the cliches, hammering home the ruthlessness of prison life and the inevitable changes it produces in men who spend their lives there. There's no glamour to the film's prison sequences, no fetishization and no romantic notions that penitentiaries are crucibles that fire strong men's bodies and souls. They're ugly, cruel and brutalizing; it's clear that the men who survive inside cripple themselves to do so, even when the maiming doesn't show. Olmos and his collaborators sweat the details--the distinctive way gang members button their shirts, the mechanics of getting tattoos or smuggling contraband within the prison (a particularly disgusting sequence)--and the payoff is a fully realized universe, claustrophobic but complete. The outside world is hardly a factor; Santana spends precious little time there, and the viewer follows suit. When he's out of prison, his world seems limited to drug dens and a few square blocks of the old neighborhood; a visit to the palatial home of a mafioso whose turf Santana's gang plans to invade seems as exotic as a trip to China's Forbidden City.

While excelling in its depiction of the familial nature of gang relationships, AMERICAN ME is less successful in handling the dynamics within the Montoya clan. Though one could argue that this is a reflection of Santana's experience, which shapes the film's worldview, it's still a problem. Saintly Esperanza, distant and embittered Pedro, impressionable Paulito, Santana's younger brother: they're all cliches, and while AMERICAN ME seems to aim for the scope of THE GODFATHER, the preponderance of shallow characterizations severely undermines its strength. One wants so much to like AMERICAN ME for its passion and its deglamorization of criminal life that it's painful to have to dwell on its flaws. But ultimately the flaws overwhelm it, dragging it down to the level of heartfelt propaganda. (Violence, substance abuse, profanity, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.) leave a comment

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