Olmos' 'American Me' delivers universal message

March 22, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

For Edward James Olmos, both the ayes and eyes have it.

The ayes have it because he's said yes to responsibility and no to despair and invested his considerable power as a movie star in earnest projects aimed at making money only as a tertiary goal: Before he makes money, Olmos wants to make a difference.

And the eyes have it because his are such powerful beacons of will and intelligence: He could glare his way into a missile bunker or a bank vault. When he lays the eyes on someone in his new film "American Me," one understands implicitly that that person will soon cease to exist. They are the eyes of a killer and a rapist and a drug dealer. And in the film, he is all of them.

It is an astonishing direction for a career to take. After all, Olmos was coming off a long run as the moral center of a well-regarded TV show, "Miami Vice," where he played Lt. Martin Castillo, a virtual ninja in the service of a drug-free America; then he was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Jaime Escalante in "Stand and Deliver," the Los Angeles calculus teacher who nudged a generation of inner city kids to extraordinary performance.

Yet in another sense, "American Me" isn't so astonishing at all: It's conceived to express both the ayes and the eyes. It is both a cautionary tale addressed to Olmos's own Hispanic community, engineered to display for them the tragic consequences of pursuing narcotics as a lifestyle; and it is a star vehicle, in which the director (Olmos) gives the star (Olmos) all the good lines and all the good moves and the upshot will certainly propel the star into extraordinary visibility as a movie star.

It is a critique of machismo, in other words, that reeks of machismo.

"Machismo isn't necessarily a bad thing," Olmos said recently. "That pride, that self-esteem, that belief in self, it can be very positive. But when it turns bad, boy, watch out. It can be a killer."

The movie is almost unremittingly violent. It tells the story of Santana, a Mexican-American youth who, conceived in rape, passes the insult along. Rejected by his father, he finds nourishment in the gang, and grows to run it; finally, even from a jail cell at Folsom State Prison, he controls the narcotics market in East Los Angeles. Stabbings and rapes are common in this brutal world.

"It's based on a true story," says Olmos. "I first heard it in the early 1970s, when we [co-producer Robert A. Young and writer Floyd Mutrux] were working on 'The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.' I heard this story of a member of the Mexican Mafia who had been stabbed 69 times in prison because he'd given up on the drug life. I knew I had to make that movie, in some way."

Mutrux wrote a first draft, and the film was put in motion. But one way or another, it never got into production.

"It was one of those 'lost scripts.' It was famous for being so good, but the deals kept falling apart."

At one point, it was conceived as a project for Al Pacino -- who later went on to play a role similar to Santana's in "Scarface" -- with Young directing and Olmos producing.

But meanwhile, Olmos's career was growing, as was his clout in the industry. Finally, after the success of "Stand and Deliver," he was able to put the project together.

"It took me 18 years to get the story made, and finally Bob said to me, 'Eddie, you've worked so hard, why don't you just direct it yourself.' And so I did, with Bob producing and acting as photographer."

Olmos, who in person is just as leonine and exotic a presence as he is on screen, and who possesses in life as on film the power to dominate a room or a conversation with a single lifted eyebrow or one of those black-diamond glares, says that the film ought to be shown as a double-feature with "Stand and Deliver."

"It would make a great object lesson," he says. "It represents the two possibilities. Work hard and try to make something of your life. Or give way to violence and tragedy. This is not just a Hispanic problem, either," he says, and thanks a reporter for phrasing a question in acknowledgment of that fact. "It's something that all young men in all cultures face. And they've never solved it, and yet now, more than ever, they must."

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