Studio: Universal Studios
US Rating: R - Strong Violence and Language, and Sensuality and Drug Content
Film Length: 126 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Video Resolution/Codec: 1080p/VC-1
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Plus, French Dolby Digital Plus 2.0
Subtitles: Optional English SDH and French Subtitles
The Film - out of
The rise to power of the Mexican Mafia’s Montoya Santana over a span of thirty years was a brutal and dangerous one. As a young boy, his life was filled with reckless petty crime and turf wars and spent mostly in Juvenile Detention. While in ‘juvie’, he murdered another boy in retaliation for a vicious attack and earned himself a bus ride to straight from juvenile detention to Folsom prison, upon his eighteenth birthday.
His time in prison, with the respect he had already earned, allowed him to quickly become the powerful and feared leader of the ‘Chicano’ gang. From the mean streets of East L.A to the dangers of prison life, Santana (Edward James Olmos) and his two closest friends since childhood, Mundo (Pepe Serna) and JD (William Forsythe) lead lives filled with crime and constant challenges to their power.
Upon his release from prison, Santana finds that the world has changed but he still rules those streets with the power and the respect that he had on the inside. Adjusting to the new world is hard, but escaping from the only life he has known is much harder.
What a magnificent directorial debut from the accomplished Edward James Olmos. From a story and screenplay by Floyd Mutrux, he has crafted somewhat of an epic film and a remarkably honest one at that. While Mr. Olmos may dominate the small screen at the moment with his commanding performance as ‘Admiral Adama’ on Battlestar Galactica, his cinematic resume should not be overlooked. While his list of screen credits may be short, they represent a solid body of work, from the cult favorite Blade Runner to the inspirational Stand and Deliver. In tackling the difficult and controversial subject matter found in American Me, Olmos has directed an intelligent tale with a rare confidence for a first time director.
American Me, the tale of Montoya Santana’s ascension to revered gang leader, takes us on a journey spanning thirty years, beginning in the zoot suit days, where racism against Mexican immigrants was both rampant and violent. Olmos, in addition to directing and producing the film, took on the lead role of the Mexican Mafia gang leader and gives an incredibly convincing performance. He also manages to get some great performances out of the rest of his cast. William Forsythe is wonderful as Santana’s lifelong ‘crime partner’ JD and Pepe Serna as Mundo is very strong indeed.
The pace of the film is methodical, almost slow, but rather than dulling the drama it works to build a brooding tension to the events and serves to add a sense of the reality of the story. The film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the dreadful prison life or the perilous machismo that grips gang members. It exposes the desperate and dire life of so many discarded and maligned minority youth who are often left with little or no choice but to fall in with the ‘street tough’ crowds that came before them, aggressively descending into the territorial ‘pack’ mentality.
Director Olmos explores the brutality of the ‘Chicano’ gang life, but never revels in it, creating a poetic and ambitious film that is to be applauded.
What a disappointment the image quality is on this HD-DVD of American Me. Universal Studios has dusted off this catalogue release, presenting it in its original aspect ratio of 1:85.1 and encoded VC-1.
There is some dust on the print and the HD transfer brings out a fair amount of natural film grain, but there are many times when the image is incredible soft and very pale. I cannot attest to how well this transfer represents the original theatrical presentation; however there are times when the colors should have shone but instead, seemed muted and bland. While that may be fitting for the Folsom prison scenes, it was out of place in the relative freedom of East L.A.
Filmed using light from mostly natural sources, the image is quite dark and features are not always distinguishable. It does aid the tone of the film at times, working to enhance the realism of the moment, but it isn’t always welcome.
Universal has provided this 1992 film with an English Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track. It is definitely better the picture quality and for a film filled with hushed tone conversations or dialogue light scenes, it manages to be quite active in the surrounds at times. The music is never central in the speakers but supports the events on screen, albeit at a lower level. There isn’t much bass to speak of through the film, but what we do have is an audio track that suits the film well.
While this release is light on extra's, the documentary provided is excellent and earns a 'quality over quantity' three star rating.
Lives In Hazard – An Award Winning Documentary: - (57:44) – A special feature of incredible substance. This documentary was created based on production footage and interviews with gang members from ‘MC Force’ and ‘Big Hazard’. Some of the gang members actually became actors in the movie. This is a ‘making of’ that transcends the film it is associated with, becoming a dose of reality from the ruthless life of gang-ridden East L.A. It is a humble examination of the lives of several gang members, the vicious cycle of territorial violence and the disaffected youth looking to become a part of something, anything. A powerful accompanying piece both in its understanding and its damnation of gang violence.
Theatrical Trailer – (1:55)
American Me is a film with moments of genuine poetic elegance. It doesn’t try to be an action film; it doesn’t even try for thrills or drama but succeeds in pulling the viewer in to the tough life and existence of these characters for a couple of hours. Olmos uses the camera almost as an observer at times, particularly during the earlier years depicted in the film and it helps lure us into this world that he has bravely chosen to show us.
According to court documents, Olmos was the victim of extortion as a result of taking on this project and showing the Mexican Mafia in less than a glowing light. Three of the film’s ex-gang member consultants were murdered following the release of this film in apparent retaliation for the homosexual rape scene. Olmos himself received death threats. Tales of the Hispanic culture are not explored by Hollywood with nearly as much interest or vigor as it could or even should. And so it is praiseworthy for Olmos to pursue this troubling topic with sincerity and a good measure of sympathy.
This is an intelligent and quite powerful film that demands both our attention and our appreciation.