Edward James Olmos is now sixty years old. I remember him best in "Blade Runner." That was a long time ago. Not quite that long ago, Omos directed the film "American Me" and at the age of forty-five, Olmos asked the audience to suspend disbelief and accept him as a Mexican youth who was forced into Folsom Prison after doing what was necessary to survive and ultimately creating the Mexican Mafia. Based on the true story circumstances of life in the "La Eme" gangs of Los Angeles, "American Me" is a slow, yet powerful film that harshly depicts life for young Mexican males in Folsom Prison and on the mean streets of Los Angeles.
The film begins with the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles and shows the beating of Pedro Santana (Sal Lopez) and brutal raping of his wife Esperanza Santana (Vira Montes) at the hands of U.S. Naval Sailors. Their son Montoya (Edward James Olmos) was born in the aftermath of that riot and never found favor in his father's eyes. He turned to gang life and befriended Mundo (Pepe Serna) and a Caucasian named J.D. (William Forsythe) who spoke in a Chicano manner and did not consider himself white, but Mexican. When they are assaulted and chased by a larger gang, the three find safety in a restaurant, but J.D. is shot by the proprietor and the three are placed in Juvenile Detention and ultimately find themselves detained in Folsom.
While in Folsom prison, Montoya and his "brothers" do what they need to earn respect and make life easier for themselves and the other Mexican's that are penned up in the maximum security prison. Montoya begins to control the Mexican Mafia from within the walls of the prison and is able to get himself and others whatever they want and use any means necessary to do so. Violence is the language of their dealings and Montoya and his La Eme brethren are not above killing one of their own to command the respect of the black gangs and the white gangs that populate the prison. When Montoya is finally given freedom, he is unable to relate to life on the outside and having grown up behind bars, Montoya knows little about women, life and continually strives for respect he feels he deserves.
"American Me" is a brutal film that does not turn away from depicting the horrendous acts that occur behind the walls of Folsom Prison or on the streets of gang controlled Los Angeles. Murder, drugs and homosexual rapings are commonplace behind prison walls and they are used for control and for pleasure. "American Me" shows all without flinching and the blood spills freely and easily. An overdose of a child, a lovemaking session that goes wrong and a brother killings his own brother are only a sampling of the violent occurrences that happen during the watching of "American Me." The film intends to educate the world on gang violence and the reasons behind much of this violence. In this regard, it succeeds easily.
Where the film suffers is the slow pacing under the hand of director Edward James Olmos and his decision to star as Montoya Santana. Watching the skilled actor trying to pass as a man half his age does not always work and it becomes difficult at times trying to understand the motives of a young man, when it appears he is much older and wiser. The film moves along slowly and at times seems like a continual sequence of slow buildups to violence. The whole cohesive plot never becomes apparent until the later stages of the film when it finally becomes clear as to the direction intended by Olmos. This is a violent film and Olmos does a fine job acting. However, it is slow and Olmos was a decade too old to effectively fit into the shoes of the main character.
"American Me" details the dark and gruesome gang life. It's HD-DVD video details the dark and gruesome nature of a film that is quickly released onto a format without proper remastering and the 1.85:1 picture looks only marginally better than a standard definition DVD. Throughout much of the film's running time, I could have easily believed the VC-1 mastered picture was actually a standard definition DVD. The film suffers with levels of detail that is quite weak for many moments and the desaturated colors and constant usage of blues and grays never creates anything pleasing for the eye. Much of the reason for this is the low budget nature of the film. "American Me" was not shot with a large bankroll and it looks the part. Source materials are fairly clean. There is grain found throughout the film and a few other blemishes could be spotted, but most of the problems with the film lie in its overly soft picture that lacks any strong coloring. I have no problem blaming the budget and the fifteen year age of the film, but it just doesn't look very good.
The low budget underpinnings of "American Me" again becomes apparent when you listen to the film. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix is contained almost entirely in the front three channels and the center channel is asked to do most of the work. There were a few gunshots and one handball hit that brought about some bass or rear channel presence, but for the most part, "American Me" has a stereo-sounding mix that never transcends above being minimal. Dialogue suffers a bit with this soundtrack as well. I had to increase the volume level a couple decibels over my normal listening levels to clearly hear each spoken word. Subtitles are provided to help understand the slang language used in the film, but there were a few times when I needed them to just reinforce what I thought I heard was said. If it weren't for the story being told on-screen, the sound and video of this film would have made watching "American Me" a far lesser experience.
Two pieces of supplemental material are contained on the HD-DVD release of "American Me." The first and very nice documentary "Lives In Hazard" (57:44) is a top-notch documentary that takes a look at the actual lives of those growing up in Mexican gangs. The documentary also details how these Mexican youths are placed into the penal system and mostly forgotten and never given a chance to rehabilitate and try to make a better life for themselves. Life is hard enough for the young Mexican males who are interviewed for the documentary when they were on the streets of Los Angeles. However, life is even harder in Folsom prison. Edward James Olmos discusses the neighborhood and gang life that surrounded his own youth and this documentary is truthful and just as poignant and powerful as the primary picture. In addition to the documentary, the film's Theatrical Trailer is included.
I question Universal's decision to release a film such as "American Me" on the HD-DVD format at this point of time. There is still not a large installed base of players and I cannot imagine this film attracting much an audience. I would imagine only a few hundred of these discs selling at most. Regardless, if it was not for the film's debut on the high definition format, I would have never taken the time or had the opportunity to watch Edward James Olmos project. This is a violent and unflinching film that looks at gang life and life in prison for Mexican males. Although slow in pacing, this is an entertaining picture. The HD-DVD title features some of the worst visuals yet to be seen on the format; another question mark regarding the title's release at this point. The sound quality is contained in the front three channels and another byproduct of the film's low budget. The documentary contained on the disc is very good and worth watching. This is a good film and a different kind of offering on HD-DVD, but it certainly doesn't help sell the technology.