Wednesday, November 07, 2007

American Gangster

Director: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Thelma & Louise)
Writers: Steven Zaillian, Mark Jacobson
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, John Hawkes
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 157 min
read my spoiler disclaimer

reviewed by Andrew James
     After reading several critical reviews of American Gangster, I found several pieces comparing Ridley's newest film to Godfather, Casino and Scarface. Personally, I don't see how this film remotely resembles any of those pictures, other than the fact that it has to do with a gangster. Okay, maybe Scarface if you take into account that the anti-hero is in the racial minority. Ridley Scott has created something that stands totally on its own two legs. That's not to say this is necessarily a great film, just that I won't be comparing it to any other pictures simply because its a basically a cops and robbers movie.

      Russel Crowe plays Richie, an almost too honest of a cop trying to maintain justice and order in a cop corrupt New York City. Near the beginning of the film he's ostracized by his fellow officers for doing the right thing and turning in some confiscated drug money instead of keeping it for himself. Meanwhile, his home life is in shambles; an ongoing divorce trial, fighting for custody of his son and general financial woes.

      Obviously the meat of this story though, is Denzel's character of Frank Lucas. A limo driver/bodyguard to the most notorious gangster in NYC. Frank learns the ropes from the best in the business. When his mentor dies, Frank picks up exactly where his boss left off... with his dying words about the tragedy of cutting out the middle man. What does Frank do? By cutting out the middle man and going straight to the source, he's able to sell dope on the street that's twice as potent for half the price. In this way he becomes the "ruler" of his domain: New York City.

      While watching the film, you might get the sense that nothing is happening... and you'd be right. And you'd be wrong. Although there's not a lot of hard hitting action sequences and not much in the way of intense dialogue encounters (this isn't The Departed), there's still a fair bit to chew on in regards to the main characters. Ridley Scott takes his time setting things up for his audience. And I mean he takes his time! The meat of the actual story and moments of contention between our two leads don't even bubble to the surface until at least an hour into the film. Richie isn't even aware of Frank's existence for most of the movie.

      Instead, we see our characters grow and we learn to understand who they are as people and we learn that the dynamic they have with their "co-workers" is really very similar. Both Richie and Frank lead parallel lives, but on opposite sides of the law. Besides the implications and undertones, the most obvious correlation between the two being their devotion to a strict moral code. Also, there's one segment in which we splice back and forth between the two as they recruit members to carry out their respective missions.

      This isn't to say the film is dull; far from it. We're plunged into several key meetings between good guys and bad guys. Trying to discern the fine line between these two groups is half the fun. It's just that the way we do it is deliberate and yes, maybe some would consider slow. You're not going to get a big showdown with guns and explosions though. If that's what you're looking for, step aside, you won't find it here.

      The biggest joy in the movie, at least to me, is what always makes films of this kind more enjoyable: the ability of the film maker to place you into the time period in which the story takes place. Sometimes it gets cheesy and sometimes a director and set designer (et al.) can go overboard with the style (particularly in films taking place in the 80s). But spanning two decades, Scott has focussed very heavily here on the details of that era. The clothing, the locales, the weaponry and surrounding environment are all top-notch. But what makes it authentic, are not all of the visual props but the details: the way in which police procedure is carried out and fulfilled; the TV on in the background constantly reminding of us of the conflict in Vietnam. Scott does a wondrous job of literally giving us the feel of what crime-ridden NYC might've been like at the time.

      Surprisingly, the lack of really solid acting is what drags the film down just a bit. None of our actors are actively bad, it just isn't solid. Denzel plays a very strong, charismatic character. What else is new? It's a fine performance, but it's the same thing we get from Washington in every other picture he's done for the last 10 years: "They tried to kill MY WIFE!" With a hearty chest thump. Yeah Denzel, we saw Training Day and Man on Fire too.

      While Crowe is fairly impressive, it's not his acting that lacks, it's the character and dialogue that he's given to work with. There's not really anything there to really dive into with both feet and sink or swim. It ends up just being a fairly straight forward character with, admittedly, a lot on his mind, but not a whole lot to express physically. The entire supporting cast is this way. Ejiofor makes a valiant attempt and manages alright as does the slowly revitalizing career of Josh Brolin. Still, no one here really puts out an over the top, blistering performance that steals the show.

      So while the movie tackles many basic morality questions: the drug war, suppressing evidence, police corruption and family values among others, it lacks a certain pinache that's difficult to put a finger on. It's great to watch familiar faces (and there are MANY) on the screen and Scott always has slick production values. There's potential for a really great story here that sort of falters a bit with the extraneous amounts of character development that just ends up dragging in many places. Some intense moments, an ultimately satisfying tale (which if you don't already know about is fun to try and "figure out") and a terrific array of character actors makes for a general positive experience. But the comparisons to The Departed, Goodfellas and The Godfather just don't hold any water.

Click "play" to see the trailer:

IMDb profile - full cast and crew
Official Site
Flixster Profile for American Gangster

Posted by Andrew James in

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  1. I have to say I disagree with you for the most part (at least on the negative points). I absolutely LOVED this film, very little I didn’t like about it. Good review though.

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  2. I loved this one my fav new movie

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