Cranky's Flickershow Reviews
By Neil Richter
Street Economics 101
Ridley Scott's American Gangster is one of those movies where you can see every dollar that was spent on it up on the screen. In addition to the pair of A-listers heading up the cast, every nook and cranny of this film is splashed with period detail. This isn't the overblown 70's of Austin Powers, but a cannily crafted look at the Vietnam era that offers a window to the past while drawing plenty of comparisons to the present (The connections between the lead character's crime syndicate and modern-day corporate warfare aren't subtle). From the dirty, cluttered offices of the workaday detectives to the slick nightclubs frequented by Harlem's criminal elite, American Gangster oozes atmosphere. Though I was indeed impressed with this aspect of the film, I expected nothing less. After all, Ridley Scott is one of the most lauded commercial filmmakers out there, with such hits under his belt as Alien, Bladerunner, and Thelma and Louise. Here, he doesn't quite achieve the heights reached by those films, but he does enough to raise the material above the inherent cliches that lie within it. As was stated, a great deal of this is due to the film's sense of visual style. Scott's camera resists hyperactivity for the most part. Instead, it simply sits and observes these characters in their natural environment. The lighting and set design do the rest. Despite its nearly three hour running time, American Gangster is always interesting to look at. Though this may seem like trite praise, it is a big part of why the film gets away with its epic length.
Still, as much as I wanted to enjoy this film to the fullest (I'm quite a crime film buff), I left the theatre feeling rather hollow. This is due to a number of factors which simply don't add up. Perhaps my most pressing problem is with Frank Lucas as a character. As written in the script, its relatively clear that he's a sociopath. A smart sociopath with a brilliant business sense, but a sociopath nonetheless. Sure, he talks about honesty and integrity, but sooner or later he'll inevitably throw it all out the window to smash a man's head in a piano when he's frustrated. From the beginning to the end, he remains a cipher. The performance of Denzel Washington does almost nothing to change this. I am rather mystified at the glowing praise he is receiving. Yes, Denzel nails Lucas' ice-cold pragmatism and sudden bursts of rage, but in the end its all just a mask. We never see the man underneath. Beyond sheer greed and a deep-seated sense of racial injustice, its never clear what drives him to reach such heights, to push away everyone and everything that he cares about in the single-minded pursuit of his 'business'. True, there is a thrill in watching Washington be the 'bad guy' again, but this performance lacks the live-wire intensity of his Oscar winning turn in Training Day. By the time the credits roll it feels like we've spent three hours with a very bored professional. He does what is required of him, cranks up the intensity for a few scenes, looks damn cool in a suit, then gets his paycheck. I donŐt think Denzel's heart was in this one.
This is not to say that Lucas' story isn't interesting: Its fascinating. Scott delves deep into the machinations of Lucas' empire: where the drugs come from, how they're processed, how the money is stored away, etc. This is all extremely engrossing, but without a single character to care about, its appeal becomes rather cosmetic and superficial. It becomes more of a technical exercise than anything else.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Russel Crowe. As detective Riche Roberts, Crowe amps up the gruff blue-collar mannerisms and tough-guy swagger. In the end, he fares better than his co-star. Where Lucas is bloodless and methodical, Roberts is messy, flawed, and persistantly human. If there's any character that we connect with, its him. The problem with Roberts' storyline is that its just not interesting enough. Whenever we cut away to see Roberts attend another custody hearing with his bitter ex-wife or talk shop with his narcotics team, we're practically begging to get back to the criminal intrigue of Lucas' Harlem exploits. While its easy for one to appreciate the strength of Russel Crowe as an actor, the script does him no favors. He becomes merely an exceptionally well-played stereotype: the honest cop.
One last nagging problem caught my attention. There are times in American Gangster where I don't know if Ridley Scott knew what kind of movie he wanted to make. For most of its running time, the film maintains the somber, humorless tone of 'serious' crime epics like The Godfather. Then, every once in awhile, Scott throws in a stylistic flourish thatŐs pure pulp. Take the opening scene: Frank Lucas sets a man on fire then shoots him, cut to black, suddenly—BAM—the title comes up: American Gangster. The entire under-21 crowd in the audience bursts into cheers, ready for a couple hours of head-smashing and cool one-liners. Then Scott goes all classy on us, giving the audience dark burnished interiors, quiet dialogue, and plot exposition. Half the audience is happy, the other half wonders when people are going to start shooting each other again. Scott executes a couple of jarring switches like this throughout the narrative. For about 90% of the film, things remains quiet, controlled, and relatively subtle. Still, there is that 10% that seems to be out of a different movie altogether: A blazing shootout in a drug lab thatŐs straight out of Bad Boys, corrupt cops in leather jackets executing the 'slow-motion walk' that just tells you how bad they are. In the end, these tonal disturbances took me out of the narrative. I have no problem with a stylized crime film wherein people walk in slow motion and have a shootout that's straight out of WWII, but Ridley Scott clearly doesn't want to make that movie. Perhaps I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but it caught me off-guard.
In the end, if you go into American Gangster with your expectation knocked down a few notches, I can all but guarantee that you'll enjoy it. As a crime film, its rock solid, every bit the professional production that you'd expect from a Ridley Scott joint. Still, the ad campaign all but screams OSCAR, and people are trying to hype it into something beyond what it is: a solid crime drama. Its not a classic. Despite what the ads might claim, its not going to dethrone The Departed in the pantheon of recent crime films.
But hey, I'm not saying the thing isn't entertaining.