The criminal life is portrayed with all the glamour of a mugshot in American Me, a powerful indictment of the cycle of violence bred by the prisons and street culture. Project has been gestating since 1973, when Floyd Mutrux wrote the script. Al Pacino was once slated to star.
In a punchy prologue, the central figure of Santana (played as an adult by Edward James Olmos) is shown to be, literally, a child of the Pachuco riots of 1943. Pushed along by some incantatory, poetic narration, pic jumps to 1959, when the 16-year-old Santana forms a gang with his buddies Mundo (Pepe Serno) and J.D. (William Forsythe).
Long section detailing life at Folsom State Prison (where the company shot for three weeks) is as fascinating as it is disturbing. Film sketches racial divisions within the pen, the rise of the so-called Mexican Mafia, how drugs are smuggled inside, the scams that can make life there safer and how men inside control things outside. Olmos makes for a mesmerizing, implacable Santana, one of the least romanticized film gangsters since Paul Muni’s Scarface.