At 125 minutes, American Me is long, and feels longer. It would be great to say that the gifted Edward James Olmos (director and lead actor) is good as Santana, but he seems to deliberately be giving a maddeningly one-note performance. Perhaps gang members do speak in monotones, but art is supposed to enhance real life, not reproduce it in all its dullness. Santana is jailed as a juvenile but after killing someone is sent directly to prison at age 18, so more than half of the film is devoted to prison life, including inmates' power moves, gang wars, sexual assaults, and drug use, leading us to believe that this is a movie about life in prison, repetitive and without a dramatic destination. But no. When Santana is released from prison, we then prepare for a story about life outside prison. Wrong again! In fact, the movie doesn't present a coherent plan of any kind to guide the puzzled viewer. No principles are laid out or consistently followed. Loyalty is good except when it gets in the way of maintaining power. Taking drugs is bad, but selling them to kids is okay. Falling in love is good, but then raping your screaming girlfriend is also okay. When the narrator dies, we feel misled. Has the otherwise realistic style been retroactively replaced by a story told by a ghost?
The script is dreadful. We never see Santana read a book, but later he reports that he craves learning and read extensively in prison, ignoring the most foundational tenet of screenwriting -- show don't tell. If this has anything to offer at all, it can be praised for shining a spotlight on a cinematically neglected community, Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, their poverty, the bias they face, and the fact that things haven't changed all that much for them since this movie was made nearly 30 years ago. As a historical aside, it was reported that the character of Santana was based on Rodolfo Cadena, founding member of the prison gang La Eme, also called the Mexican Mafia. It was also reported that three of the film's consultants were killed by La Eme members, unhappy with the gang's negative depiction in the movie.