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MOVIE REVIEW : 'American Me' Delivers

March 13, 1992|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"American Me" opens in theaters throughout San Diego County today, but it has been playing in Edward James Olmos' head for 18 years. He not only stars in, directed and co-produced this powerful, pointed film about the self-perpetuating cycle of gang life in East Los Angeles, but he also just about willed it into existence.

Olmos' relentless passion is the best thing about "American Me," a cautionary tale that offers a chilling, oppressive look at the connections between Latino prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia and drug traffic in the barrio. Earnest, unrelenting and violent, "American Me" packs a considerable wallop, but it has concentrated so hard on delivering its message that, inevitably, its value as drama tends at times to fall by the wayside.

Olmos, Oscar-nominated for "Stand and Deliver" and associated with both television's "Miami Vice" and the theatrical "Zoot Suit," is probably America's most prominent Latino actor. He apparently came across Floyd Mutrux's original script (Desmond Nakano now shares screen credit) in 1974, when it was a project for Al Pacino, and never lost interest in it. And, as the actor has made clear in interviews, he sees "American Me" less as a movie than as a wake-up call for a community under

siege.

The first sound heard in "American Me" is the familiar one of prison doors clanging shut. Santana (Olmos) is behind bars, and he looks like he's been there before. Sitting in his cell, sifting through a box of old photographs, he leads us through his life, and, by implication, the dark side of Los Angeles' Latino community's as well.

Santana's story begins before he was born, with a strong recreation of the infamous anti-Latino Zoot Suit riots of 1943, the first step in the barrio's legacy of violence, where Santana's father (Sal Lopez) is severely beaten and his mother Esperanza (Vira Montes) is raped.

When we first see Santana, in 1959, he is a tough 16-year-old, at odds with his embittered old man and intent only on forming a tight "cliqua" or gang with neighborhood pals J.D. and Mundo. Almost by accident, they get in trouble with the law and end up in the brutal confines of Juvenile Hall, where circumstances teach Santana a hard lesson: "Belonging is good, but respect is better."

With all this as an extensive prologue, "American Me" concentrates on the three friends as adults (Pepe Serna playing Mundo and the protean William Forsythe as J.D.) doing long stretches in Folsom State Prison. Cold, brutal, almost emotionless individuals, ossified by years behind the walls, they have expanded their neighborhood "cliqua" into a prison-wide one known as the Mexican Mafia that not only offers welcome protection for Latino inmates but also sates the prison-wide appetite for gambling, sex and drugs.

"American Me" was allowed unprecedented access to the real Folsom Prison, shooting there for three weeks and using the inmates as extras, and that permission (along with the script's extensive use of street slang) strengthen the film's primary virtue, an almost documentary sense of criminal verisimilitude. Watching Santana and his cohorts ingeniously smuggle drugs and administer violent retribution provides a chilling picture of a world most of us would rather not know existed.

As the man with the coldest stare this side of Alcatraz, Olmos, his eyes soulful in a face of stone, gives a contained, charismatic performance as the powerful Santana. His direction (helped by cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos and co-producer Robert Young as a camera operator) is similarly geared toward avoiding undue exaggeration in order to make the whole seem as realistic as possible.

Once Santana is released from prison, however, "American Me" (rated R for strong violence, sensuality, language and drug content) starts to lose the intensity of its focus, moving off into two separate directions with mixed results. Santana becomes attracted to both Julie (Evelina Fernandez), a neighborhood single parent, and to the East L.A. drug traffic, run by the Italian Mafia, as a potential source of profit.

In Santana's scenes with Julie, the unlooked-for awkwardness that comes with the fact that he never learned to drive, to dance, or even make love to a woman, are some of "American Me" 's most memorable and human, but they seem awkwardly joined to a film so concerned with sounding a very different kind of warning.

And when it comes to the Mafia-Mafia conflict, "American Me" is really at sea, resorting to cliched situations and predictable violence that merely echo "The Godfather" and lack the kind of impact that makes the film distinctive. But when Olmos sticks to the things he knows in his gut, to emphasizing the points about kids victimized by the gang mystique that he has fought so many years to express, an impact is what "American Me" definitely makes.

'American Me'

Edward James Olmos: Santana

William Forsythe: J.D.

Pepe Serna: Mundo

Danny De La Paz: Puppet

Daniel Villarreal: Little Puppet

Evelina Fernandez: Julie

Sal Lopez: Pedro

Vira Montes: Esperanza

A Y.O.Y. production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Edward James Olmos. Producers Sean Daniel, Robert M. Young, Edward James Olmos. Executive producers Irwin Young, Floyd Mutrux, Lou Adler. Screenplay Floyd Mutrux and Desmond Nakano. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos. Editors Arthur R. Coburn, Richard Candib. Costumes Sylvia Vega-Vasquez. Music Dennis Lambert, Claude Gaudette. Production design Joe Aubel. Art director Richard Yanez. Set decorator Martin C. Price. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong violence, sensuality, language and drug content).

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