Continuing our series on Edward James Olmos, we come to American Me (1992), a crime drama inspired by the life and death of the founder of La eMe, popularly known as the Mexican Mafia. American Me has been aptly described as a Chicano Godfather, and the influence of the finest gangster film of all time is obvious upon even a cursory viewing of the film. But Me is also a product of the early 90s, and it reminded me less of The Godfather and more of Abel Ferrara's King of New York (1990). Both films feature a crime lord being released from prison, becoming disgusted with the escalating violence on the outside, and attempting to go straight (or at least to mitigate the violence), and both also end darkly in terms of the main character's fate, with the suggestion that escape is hopeless and will lead to disaster for anyone attempting to do so. Each is well directed and features a strong lead performance that elevates otherwise rather pedestrian material. In the case of Me, Edward James Olmos directs himself in the lead performance, his debut as a feature director. His direction is sure-handed and confident without being overblown or preachy, including a great shot from the perspective of a man being carried away to be beaten. The choice to direct himself is a good one, since the quiet, low-key performance of Olmos the actor well complements the quiet, low-key style of Olmos the director. There is a well-cut sequence of the main character having sex with a woman (for the first time, as he has been in prison since he was a teen-ager) inter-cut with the brutal sexual assault of the son of a mob boss as a statement of La eMe's power. The love interest is mostly believable in the role; rather than being a typical Hollywood beauty, she has the look and affect of a woman who might be drawn to the social ineptness and strange sort of innocence one might find in a man who's been locked up his whole life.
Now I appreciate both subtle acting and subtle direction, and I'll take those before over-acting and overly busy, trick-shot directing every time, but the film could have used a little more energy, and none of the other characters really emerges from the background of various gang-bangers calling each other ese (including Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, here exemplifying the Hollywood Ethnic Actor Rule* playing a Mexican(!) gangster). The story of the godfather of the Mexican Mafia is never quite as compelling as it should be. Olmos's performance is too subtle to overcome the weaknesses of the script, and no one else in the cast steps up to lend some fire to a story that could use a little heat. (A young John Leguizamo would've livened things up a bit.) The language and rhythm of the film is initially appealing and (to this untrained ear) reasonably authentic--I particularly appreciated the mixed patois of Spanish and English, often even in the same sentence--but after hearing the words ese, homes, and vato about 300 times, it becomes a little tiresome. There's even one Chicano character who, upon taking a hit of his illegal drug of choice, declares it "good shit, man". One wonders what Olmos, trying to make a film in which Mexican-Americans emerge as real people and not caricatures, thought when he came across this moldy Hollywood stereotype in the script.
The best scenes are those inside the prison, showing how a person can run a multi-million dollar drug business from inside the walls. Things are much less interesting outside prison, and the movie seems to realize this as the Olmos character, after spending almost half the movie in prison before being released, ends up back in prison for the final fifteen minutes or so. The film contains many of the themes and ideas characteristic of Olmos's work: white racism against Chicanos, the hopelessness and despair brought on by the poverty and disempowerment of the barrio, a respected leader's attempt to reform a corrupt subset of society and the futility of such attempts, and the lack of vision of the oppressed to try for something better. The female lead, after ending her relationship with the Olmos character, declares that there's no hope for the children of the barrios as long as people like him exist. Olmos's work, while acknowledging and criticizing the enormous barriers to Chicano progress, refuses to apologize for or elide the horrors wrought by the gangs. It may be understandable that they do what they do, but it is not excusable or acceptable. If it seems that Olmos's message is contradictory--that the conditions in the barrios make life outside of criminality impossible for young Chicano men while still holding them responsible for their criminal behavior--it is a reflection of the reality of life in the barrios. This is not a weakness of his work, but a strength.
And that's probably part of why I appreciated this film, even if I'm not especially fond of it. Overall, it's a serviceable early 1990s gritty crime drama, well directed and acted but not especially exciting or memorable. Unlike its inspiration The Godfather, this is not the sort of film you can show to anyone. Recommended for fans of gangster films and Edward James Olmos fans only.**
* This is the rule based on the understanding that American audiences classify people into three ethnic groups: WASP, black, and neither WASP nor black. Actors can freely play any role within their group. This rule allows Chinese actress Joan Chen to play an American Indian in On Deadly Ground, Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán to play Sikh Indian Khan in Star Trek (look it up!), and Jewish actress Jenette Goldstein to play Vasquez(!) in Aliens. (To be fair, Vasquez will inevitably be played by Michelle Rodriguez, whose agent you call when you're casting the role of "macho angry Hispanic babe", in an upcoming remake of Aliens. Now that Alien has been remade (inexplicably named Prometheus), I assume an Aliens remake is already in the works.) Related rules: The Black Character Must Die First; Lead Actors Are White
** Fortunately, I happen to be both.