Combustible Celluloid
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With: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Hawkes, RZA, Yul Vazquez, Malcolm Goodwin, Ruby Dee, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Carla Gugino, Skyler Fortgang, John Ortiz, Cuba Gooding Jr., Armand Assante, Kathleen Garrett, Joe Morton, Ritchie Coster, Bari K. Willerford, Idris Elba, Common, Warner Miller, Albert Jones, J. Kyle Manzay, Tip Harris, Melissia Hill, Quisha Saunders, Kevin Corrigan, Robert Funaro, Jon Polito, KaDee Strickland, Roger Bart
Written by: Steven Zaillian, based on an article by Mark Jacobson
Directed by: Ridley Scott
MPAA Rating: R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality
Running Time: 158
Date: 10/19/2007

American Gangster (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Gangsta Gap

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ridley Scott's American Gangster is two and a half hours long, and it has a title that makes huge claims for greatness; it's an all-encompassing title, that invites -- or rather dares -- comparisons to all other gangster stories. Indeed, the marketing campaign and the early critical reaction would seem to back up these assertions. I'm recommending the film, but only on the basis that it works as a smaller, less significant film. If the film were only 90 minutes long and simply called "Gangster," it would make more sense.

Actually, I'm not at all sure how anyone can watch this film and not recall The Godfather films, Friedkin's The French Connection, De Palma's Scarface, Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, Scorsese's GoodFellas, Joel Coen's Miller's Crossing, "The Sopranos," or even Cronenberg's current Eastern Promises. In each case, the new film comes up short. It's visually fairly ordinary and has nothing much new to say in the story arena, save for the fact that its crime lord is black. But even then Scott doesn't use this information in any particularly interesting way, nor, I think, is he capable of doing so. Perhaps if Spike Lee had directed, and brought some of the grandeur he gave to Malcolm X (1992), then we would have had a film worthy of its title.

Aside from all this, getting right down into the film and into its moment-by-moment storytelling, it's a vivid, engaging experience, capped by two marvelous performances from Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, who, incidentally, do not meet until the final reel. Frank Lucas (Washington) is the driver, bodyguard and all-around right-hand man for a New York drug lord; when he dies, Frank puts his knowledge to work. In the late 1960s, New York is still awash in leftover drugs from the famous "French Connection" bust. Dirty cops are cutting it and selling it for unfairly high prices. Frank gets the idea to get fresh drugs from Vietnam, using American transports to bring it back to the U.S. and selling it pure and cheap, thereby eliminating the competition and getting filthy rich. He's so cool he even steals boxer Joe Louis' date, a beauty queen (Lymari Nadal), and marries her.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn cop Richie Roberts (Crowe) is in a rut. His ex-wife (Carla Gugino) hates him and he's about to lose visiting rights to his son. The rest of his time is taken up with night school, studying law. Worse, he and his partner find a trunkload of unmarked cash and decide to turn it in rather than keep it. In the corrupt police force of the day, this is seen as a betrayal, and Richie becomes an outcast. Fortunately, it gets him a job on the newly formed drug squad. He doesn't know exactly who his target is yet, but Frank Lucas soon comes under his radar.

The movie could have used its lengthy running time to present this story like a chess game, with each crafty move studied and executed with precision, but Scott lays out the movie more basically, like building blocks. It has the requisite thrills and spills, such as explosions and attempted murders and so forth. But the real excitement is in the re-creation of the sleazy New York of the late 1960s and early 1970s, full of danger and graffiti and no hint of touristy, Disney comfort. Scott has also put together a huge smorgasbord of character actors, and each gets a luxurious moment to chew the scenery. Josh Brolin (slightly self-aware, like a young William Shatner) is wonderful as a cocksure, crooked Manhattan cop who sneers down at the Brooklyn-based Richie (there's a definite line between Manhattan and Brooklyn that cannot be crossed). The reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor is here, as one of Frank's brothers, and Ruby Dee gets a few powerful moments as Frank's mom. Armand Assante is commanding as an Italian gangster who strikes a deal with Frank, and even Cuba Gooding Jr. -- he of the terrible Oscar curse -- turns up as a flashy, untrustworthy club owner.

Where Scott succeeds most of all, however, is in making both the slick bad guy's story and the shaggy good guy's story equally compelling. He transitions seamlessly back and forth and picks up effortlessly where he left off. It's difficult to do these types of movies without one side outweighing the other, and it's a nice piece of work. I'd say it's the best film of Scott's that I've seen since Thelma and Louise, but that's taking into account that I haven't really liked any of his films since Thelma and Louise (except Hannibal, but that's another story). Where it fails is in its sense of scale. It's definitely not an epic. And it's not a great film. But it's a good one.

Note: I had forgotten about it while writing my review, but this film also owes a great deal to Mario Van Peebles' 1991 film New Jack City.

DVD Details: I received Universal's 2-disc Special Edition, though there are even more elaborate versions available. This one comes with the 158-minute theatrical cut as well as a new unrated, 177-minute cut (though it's not apparent that this is Scott's "director's cut"). I had already seen the film twice in its theatrical cut and couldn't bring myself to see it again in the longer version. Other extras include deleted scenes, an alternate ending, a making-of featurette and "case files." American Gangster

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