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Bound by Honor Reviews

A sprawling drama about Chicano life in Los Angeles, BOUND BY HONOR contains powerful moments, but characters get lost in the epic sweep. Blond, blue-eyed Miklo (Damian Chapa), half-Anglo and half-Mexican, is torn between two cultures, desperate to prove a Latino heart beats beneath his creamy skin. Miklo's cousin Paco (Benjamin Bratt) seethes with resentment and anger at the world, while Paco's gentle half-brother Cruz (Jesse Borrego) sees painting as his ticket out of East LA. The three young men pledge allegiance to Vatos Locos, a local gang. Soon after, Cruz is cruelly crippled by rival gang members. Though he achieves some preliminary acclaim in mainstream art circles, drug addiction ruins his chances for a career outside the barrio. Imitating the older sibling he adores, Cruz's little brother Juanito dies of an overdose, and, rejected by his family, Cruz becomes increasingly bitter and isolated. Caught beating the gangbangers who attacked Cruz, Miklo is sent to prison. Paco goes into the army, which turns him into an upstanding member of the community. He later joins the police force, and wages war on drug dealers. Miklo drifts in and out of jail, eventually winding up at San Quentin, where he works his way up through the ranks of La Onde, a gang whose influence spreads beyond prison walls. During a brief sojourn out of jail, Miklo urges the family to forgive Cruz, while Cruz tries to persuade Miklo to stay out of trouble and put gang life behind him. Paco is forced to shoot Miklo during an armed robbery; Miklo loses a leg and returns to prison, where he tricks Paco into helping him engineer a bloody gang war that consolidates La Onde's power. Paco rejects Miklo's attempts at reconciliation, but he and Cruz put aside their differences, and in the film's final scene place their hope for the future in the strength of their love for one another and their community. Miklo, Paco and Cruz are the linchpins around which this sprawling, would-be epic about Chicano life in America is built, and their destinies are meant to embody those of countless other Latino men (women don't figure here at all) whose lives are blighted by prejudice, drugs and violence, living in a marginalized world of poverty, driven by an obsession with machismo, honor and respect. But for all its searing, slice-of-life pretensions, BOUND BY HONOR does little more than revamp the classic Hollywood cliches of slum life: 1938's ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES got the same mileage out of boyhood partners in crime who find themselves on opposite sides of the law as adults. The two most striking aspects of BOUND BY HONOR are its length, a truly epic three hours, and its similarity to Edward James Olmos' AMERICAN ME, in which a tormented drug dealer travels the same route through prison society as Miklo. The principal difference between the two films is that BOUND BY HONOR is by far the glossier effort, relentlessly picturesque in the seamlessly aestheticized manner of mainstream Hollywood films. In story, theme and characterization, BOUND BY HONOR echoes AMERICAN ME in ways large and small: the torment of mixed parentage; the rituals and horror of day-to-day prison life; the drug-related death of an innocent child, for which the hero bears unintentional responsibility; the macho code of criminality that casts law-abiding life as weak and unmasculine; the hardened gang leader mellowed (and doomed) by writing; the manly ritual of tattooing; the outcast son's tearful graveside reconciliation with an exacting father; the brutal (and overtly reviled) homoeroticism inevitable in a culture that entirely ignores women. Perhaps these elements are an inextricable part of any story of Chicano life in America, perhaps it's that screenwriter Floyd Mutrux worked on both films, perhaps it's all sheerest coincidence (although both films went into production almost simultaneously, Hackford's film was shelved nearly a year before release). But BOUND BY HONOR feels like an inflated retread of AMERICAN ME, equally driven by a relentless need to stridently warn of the many dangers facing young Latino men. That BOUND BY HONOR was directed by Anglo Taylor Hackford is irrelevant; both AMERICAN ME, which wore its Latino roots like a crown, and BOUND BY HONOR sink under the weight of cliche. BOUND BY HONOR's screenplay was co-written by barrio poet Jimmy Santiago Baca (who also co-executive produced), which may account in part for its obviousness, since the notion of the artist as social revolutionary sits uneasily with subtlety. Ultimately, like AMERICAN ME, BOUND BY HONOR aspires to the scope of THE GODFATHER. And like AMERICAN ME, it's betrayed by shallow character development and reduced to well-intentioned object lesson. (Violence, substance abuse, adult situations, sexual situations, profanity.)