by Eugene Novikov
The most interesting thing about AMERICAN GANGSTER is the modifier in the title, and Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian's view of the same. Both idealistic and deeply cynical, Ridley Scott's film dares to believe in the American Dream while at the same time suggesting that it can be perverted as easily as it can be fulfilled. After all, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) -- capitalist, family man, drug lord, individualist, innovator, murderer -- is basically its very embodiment, while his rival, Russell Crowe's Detective Richie Roberts, loses virtually everything arguably because of his honesty and dedication.Provocative stuff, this, essentially arguing that the values this country was built on winds up rewarding vices more than virtues, and letting the wrong cream rise to the top. (The film's closest ideological kin in recent years is probably Scorsese's misanthropic Gangs of New York.) In less confident hands, this material might have seemed heavy-handed, even uncomfortable -- I can see myself accusing an alternate-universe American Gangster of being a thinly-veiled communist screed. But Scott and Zaillian are veterans if anyone is, smart enough to lean on character, not push too hard, and trust the performers to sell the big moments. It works: the film is taut and compelling, seeming iconic instead of derivative, its point of view emerging from the story and not the other way around.
"Ridley Scott: Still Awesome"
Lucas rose to power in the 1970's, at the height of Vietnam -- indeed, he used his Army cousin to smuggle the heroin directly from the growers in the war-torn nation. He became the unofficial successor to his mentor, Bumpy Johnson (Clarance Williams III), the legendary and beloved mobster who, we sense, did things differently: when we first see him, he is distributing turkeys from the back of a truck. Lucas admires the man, and later continues the turkey tradition, but he's not terribly interested in being loved (except perhaps by his family, whom he moves into a mansion). He's a businessman -- find a supplier, establish a brand, cobble together a network, and sell, sell, sell. If protecting his brand and reputation means shooting a man dead on a crowded city street in broad daylight, well, that's business.
If Lucas is determined to be the kingpin -- beholden to no one -- Richie just wants to scrape by with a shred of integrity intact. He's basically defined by having turned in nearly a million dollars in drug money at a time when the standard practice for cops is to seize heroin, cut it, and sell it back; his fit of honesty makes him a pariah. But the film does a nice job of playing down any self-righteousness, such that when his estranged wife later accuses him of giving back that money "to buy being dishonest about everything else," we want to get defensive on his behalf. In what's turning out to be a banner year for him, Crowe is fantastic, a realistic and even funny portrait of rectitude -- Richie serving a subpoena by pitching it, with surprising athleticism, through a rapidly closing motel room door is one of those perfect movie moments I'm always grateful for.
The movie is clearly aiming for the gangster pantheon, though it spends more time than usual on the law enforcement end of the food chain. (On the other hand, with Josh Brolin playing the single most corrupt cop in the history of corruption and cops, what the hell's the difference?) What keeps it from getting there, ultimately, is a curious flatness -- American Gangster chugs along swimmingly, but there are no peaks or valleys, no opportunities for emotional release; the pace doesn't vary, and that can get exhausting. Scott tried a similar strategy a few years ago in Black Hawk Down, one of his best films, but there the relentlessness and lack of affect were essentially the point -- part of what made the war-is-hell film so powerful. Here, there is no such thematic confluence, and Scott just comes off as ungenerous.
But an ungenerous Ridley Scott is still better than pretty much anyone else, generous or not, and American Gangster is a smart and engaging pleasure. Its politics could have muddled and distracted, but instead the presence of a point of view staved off biopic boredom. This could have been a prestige picture on autopilot, but instead it's something genuinely interesting.(Reprinted from Filmblather.com)
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originally posted: 11/02/07 17:33:24