What is it about drug lords, vicious gangs and bloody mob violence that proves so alluring? I have to admit to being a bit mystified by it all, if not at times repulsed. Whether it's the hero-worship lauded upon the fictional Corleone clan of the 'Godfather' series, or the continued, phenomenal cult appeal of camp-fests like 'Scarface, or even video games like "Grand Theft Auto" -- I just can't warm to this whole "mob mentality."
But then every once in a while a picture comes along like acor-turned-director Edward James Olmos' 'American Me.' It's rare to see a flick that mythologizes the violent cliches of its genre, only to ultimately subvert the expectations of its audience. If 'American Me' is not be entirely successful in its lofty goals, at least it aims far higher than your run-of-the-mill exploitative gang flick.
As a story, 'American Me' is formulaic (and more than just a bit similar to Brian De Palma's 'Carlito's Way'). Though inspired by the award-winning documentary "Lives in Hazard," which chronicled the hard lives of Latino criminals beyond bars, Olmos uses the milieu only as a backdrop to tell the thirty-year rise and fall of fictional drug lord Pedro Santana. After a misspent youth on the streets of Los Angeles running petty crimes, Santana (played by Olmos himself) is busted and incarcerated in Folsom Prison, yet only grows more powerful behind bars by becoming the leader of the Mexican Mafia (or "La eMe"), the the first prison gang in California. Eventually released, Santana will find a harsh reality in attempting to go clean, as his blood-stained past doesn't give him the chance to turn his back on his former way of life.
What works best in 'American Me' is its sense of realism. Olmos clearly knows this world, if not necessarily from the criminal end but his own experiences. Just like you can't take New York out of a Martin Scorsese picture, so too does Olmos' depiction of a sweltering, uncompromising Los Angeles feel utterly authentic, with its neighborhoods and ethnic customs rendered with what would appear to be great precision and perceptiveness. Olmos' obvious passion for his tale also seems to have fired up his cast, which, though made up almost entirely of young up-and-comers (and even a few real ex-cons in to smaller roles) etch out believable, three-dimensional characters.
'American Me' eventually falters, however, both under the weight of its own didacticism and Olmos' lack of directorial prowess. The film can get heavy-handed, especially during its last third, practically hitting audiences over the head with its anti-gang and anti-drug message. And though 'American Me' is an impressive directorial debut for Olmos (it remains his only full-length theatrical feature), his sometimes flat staging of scenes and bland, static camera moves often resemble a TV melodrama rather than reaching the operatic heights of a Scorsese, Coppola or even second-rate De Palma.
Earnest to a fault, 'American Me' still offers a vivid window into a world rarely seen on film. Although attempting to bring grand cinematic excess of such bloody American crime epics as 'The Godfather,' 'GoodFellas' and 'Carlito's Way' to what is essentially a low-budget Latino independent feature sometimes exceeds Olmos' artistic grasp, 'American Me' still elevates itself far beyond most of its brethren with a strength of conviction that can't be denied.
'American Me' is the latest in a recent cycle of catalog releases from Universal that seem to have been pulled out of the closet, dusted off, and slapped on some HD DVDs to quickly feed the next-gen pipeline. Picture quality-wise, the results have been mixed, with a few titles looking rather good ('Big Lebowski,' 'Daylight') and most others middling ('Sneakers,' 'Bulletproof'). Unfortunately, 'American Me' may be the weakest of the bunch, with a dated master of a transfer that didn't look particularly good on standard-def DVD in the first place.
Presented here in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, the film was shot on a low budget and often looks it. The source is in OK shape, with some minor dirt and speckles, and fairly consistent (if thin) grain throughout. Blacks are fine, but sometimes a bit flat -- darker interiors tend to look washed-out with poor shadow delineation. Brighter scenes, however, often look quite good, with strong depth and fairly good detail.
Colors, meanwhile, are merely average in saturation and consistency, while noise can distract. Fleshtones also veer a bit towards the reds. There is also some edge enhancement visible in an apparent effort to boost sharpness (needless to say, it doesn't work all that well). Granted, in comparison to the standard-def version this is still an improvement, but when it comes to high-def, average just isn't good enough. To be sure, I've seen a few transfers worse than 'American Me' ('Army of Darkness' and 'Full Metal Jacket' come to mind), but that's hardly a compliment.
Universal provides a standard Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5mbps) for 'American Me,' and the film's low budget is again evident, with restrained sound design that hardly wows.
Though technically a gang picture, 'American Me' isn't really an action film. Discrete effects are contained to some bleeds on outdoor noise (traffic, etc.) and gunshots. Dynamic range feels a bit limited all the way around the soundfield -- high end is free of major anomalies (such as distortion) but sounds clipped nonetheless. Low bass is also rather flat by today's standards. The minimal use of music is also not particularly strong in the mix. Dialogue is fairly well recorded and rendered, although some of the offscreen voices in particularly lost in the mix (some volume boosting may be in order if you're watching at a low level).
Like the standard-def DVD, this HD DVD edition of 'American Me' includes only one major supplement, but at least it's a good one.
The award-winning, 40-minute documentary that inspired 'American Me,' "Lives in Hazard" is a tough, straight-arrow look at the Hispanic gang culture. In fact, this doc is arguably more hard-hitting and moving than the film itself as it tracks various young inmates at Folsom Prison as they wind their way through a world that can be much harsher than the streets the came from. There are a few rays of hope as, in some cases, prisoners prepare for life outside. "Lives in Hazard" offers excellent context for 'American Me,' and on its own is a sobering reminder of how many lives are wasted by a system that, quite frankly, discards the "undesirables" and only gives lip service to the idea of rehabilitation. Simply put, it's an American tragedy.
The only other extra is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which like "Lives in Hazard," is presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.
'American Me' is an honorable attempt to create a gritty, younger-skewing version of 'Godfather'-type mob movies, set in the world of Hispanic gangs. Director and actor Edward James Olmos sometimes lays on the myth a bit too thick, but 'American Me' is still worth a look for fans of these types of movies.
This HD DVD release, however, isn't really up to snuff. The transfer and soundtrack are only average high-def -- which, compared to standard-def isn't bad, but is that really enough these days? This one's a rental at best.