by Rob Gonsalves
The rather loftily titled 'American Gangster' might be worth sitting through for the tete-a-tete between Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe near the end.Washington’s Frank Lucas, a smooth Harlem drug lord, and Crowe’s Richie Roberts, a straight-arrow cop who’s just busted Frank, face one another across a table, pushing a coffee cup back and forth as if playing chess. Which, indeed, is what they’ve been doing for the past two screen hours. Finally, Richie takes the cup and sips from it. Checkmate. The chat between the two men, veering from boastful to menacing yet conducted in mostly normal tones, is a triumph of acting and screenwriting (Steven Zaillian did the honors).
"More style over substance from Ridley Scott."
American Gangster, based on a true story, is solidly performed and occasionally intriguing, but it’s yet another strangely hollow offering from Ridley Scott (who’s getting toasts from the press all over again for the recent re-issue of Blade Runner). This director has always struck me as less a visionary than an opportunist: he comes from TV commercials and knows how to make pretty pictures, but his films have little thematic or emotional consistency. He’s a stylist who happens to have lucked into a few classics without ruining them — Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise — but whose portfolio is wildly uneven (have those who call him a genius ever seen Black Rain or G.I. Jane?). Scott doesn’t bring anything special out of this story, or to it. I kept having to remind myself Michael Mann didn’t direct it.
The antagonists are seen as icons: Frank is a ruthless gangster — a murderer, a blithe poisoner of his own people — but loves his mama and his brothers, and deludes himself that he helps the people of Harlem. (He hands out free turkeys during the holidays, like Al Capone with his soup kitchens.) Richie is the polar opposite, so agonizingly non-corrupt he turns in a million dollars of found drug money, knowing it’ll mark him as a pariah on the force. (Richie and his motley crew of helpers seem to be the only clean cops in the Jersey/New York area.) They’re both family men, though Richie has driven away his wife, while Frank marries a Puerto Rican beauty with whom he seems to have nothing in common. The women in the movie are an afterthought, as cavalierly treated as the naked chicks cutting Frank’s heroin.
I don’t know how Scott or Zaillian feel about these men, but the late-’60s and early-’70s milieu is effortlessly established (Scott’s true talent, I think, is hiring good art directors and set designers). With the time divided between Frank and Richie, and then divided further among the various people in their lives, there isn’t enough time for complex portraiture; essentially this is a high-class crime drama of the sort that might’ve been wrapped up in 44 minutes on Miami Vice. Few clichés are unturned, including the Scarface bit when the gangster’s dear old mama bawls him out. The great Ruby Dee, however, plays this cliché with considerable force, and Washington touchingly defers to her in each scene they share. I also enjoyed Josh Brolin, looking like Nick Nolte in Q&A, as a slimy cop, and Armand Assante (who actually was in Q&A) as a lordly Mafia don. The cast certainly isn’t the problem with American Gangster.
Scott has never really had much sense of spatial clarity; there’s a disgracefully shot and edited chase scene, and, for all the monkish attention to interiors, not much evocation of Harlem as a place, a community, a soul. So the irony of Frank claiming to help Harlem while destroying it with smack is underheated. Frank is seen as a suave outlaw existing above the human wreckage he creates; Richie, though a philanderer and a crank, is the perfect cop (and perfect ex-husband: in a bafflingly neutral scene, he simply gives up custody of his son — perhaps to get his ex-wife and son away from danger, though it isn’t made clear — and the audience feels nothing).'American Gangster' is an epic title for a long movie that feels a couple sizes too small. If you’re not going to say anything about these men besides the obvious, what’s the point?
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originally posted: 11/05/07 12:16:37