Movie Review 2: American Gangster
By Evrim Ersoy Nov 16, 2007, 13:03 GMT
The film is a biopic of Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas. Lucas grew up in rural, segregated North Carolina. In the early 1970s, he became the biggest heroin dealer in Harlem with a smuggling scheme that imported the stuff out of Southeast Asia in the caskets of Vietnam soldiers. The film centers on narcotics lawman Richie Roberts\' struggle to bring down Lucas, whose flamboyant style earned him the street name ...more
Ridley Scott has always seemed remained bit of an enigma to this reviewer. To date he has helmed a wide spectrum of movies ranging from the classic to the bottom-of-the-pile stinker. One can never tell whether his next project is going to be soaring to the blue skies or crawling limp and saggy on the floor. And perhaps it is this inconsistency which makes this reviewer approaches each offering with some apprehension and uneasiness.
Take, for example, the case of ‘American Gangster’.
The film sounded, at least on paper, like interesting material. It was a true story based on two very outlandish and unique characters – it had a good cast, it obviously had a fairly impressive budget to spend on sets and costumes and most important of all it looked like the kind of character-driven epic that Ridley Scott produces his best work out of.
Come the press screening, all this turned out to be an illusion.
Now don’t get me wrong, ‘American Gangster’ is not a bad film. No, a bad film would be something that would make an audience unhappy or displeased. ‘American Gangster’ is worse. It is a distinctly average film.
Focusing on the story of Frank Lucas , a drug dealer climbing the ladder very fast, and Richie Roberts, the detective trying to bring down the drug trade, ‘American Gangster’ sets its story firmly in the 1970’s America. Frank Lucas, ably played By Denzel Washington, is the driver and helper to one of Harlem’s big crime bosses. When his boss suddenly dies, Frank moves in and takes over his operation – much to the surprise of other local bosses. An intelligent man, Frank creates a unique way of importing drugs whilst cutting out the middle man which gives him the edge he needs to slowly gain control of the streets of New York. Meanwhile detective Richie Roberts, Russell Crowe reprising his persona for the millionth time, has just been offered an opportunity to create and head a team of seasoned cops to bust the drug traffic surrounding New York. A renegade and an outsider Richie jumps at the opportunity to shake off the massive bureaucracy which shackles him and actually start to do some policing. It is only a matter of time before the paths of these two unique characters cross.
There are a few things about ‘American Gangster’ that are very hard to deny: One of these is the look of the film. Scott captures a magnificently 70’s New York , from the seedy streets of Harlem to the sparse and depressive offices the policemen inhabit, everything looks just the part. The film’s washed out color scheme helps make it look like something made in the 70’s. The distinctive contrast between the streets and Frank Lucas’s wealthy lifestyle also works very well within the context of this contrast. There is a griminess, a grittiness to the film which only works to accentuate the feel of the period.
The performances are also commendable – Denzel Washington obviously has a ball with his part. We’ve seen before what he is capable of given the right material – which this turns out to be. He plays Frank Lucas as a soft-spoken man who is capable of and prone to burst of violence when his peace and his order is threatened. His ability to devise, to manipulate, to understand and to act stress the sharp intelligence that lies in the man’s nature.
Russell Crowe also gives a very good performance, although as remarked before it is nothing more than a rehash of the same role he has been creating on-screen since his first film. Although one suspects he might be capable of more, he seems content in the hard men with a conscience and heart of gold parts at the moment and the way he deals with them is nothing less than impressive.
Supporting the two stars is a stellar cast. Although no one gets enough screen time to stretch their acting muscles more than a few minutes, it is credit to Scott that he understands the importance of supporting the script and the character roles with more than able actors and actresses.
So far, so good. However this is where the good and the great leave their place to the average and the obvious.
It is apparent event from the synopsis that the story of Frank Lucas is an absorbing and interesting one. Here is a man who against all odd managed to create and run one of the biggest drug kingpins of the 1907’s and all under the nose of Uncle Sam.
But the script to ‘American Gangster’ seems intent on making that story as run-of-the-mill as possible. Every scene, every dialogue feels old , re-hashed as if no one knew what they were aiming for. The whole structure of the film feels disjointed, jumping from scene to scene sometimes the underlying logic to the whole plot is that there seems to be none. It is almost an effort to make sure the audience never stops to breathe because if they do, they might spot the Swiss cheese holes in the structure.
The dialogue is also another moot point. I don’t know if there is a book out there called 1000 Cliché Dialogues To Use In Gangster movies but if there is, this film will surely be sued for plagiarizing it. Every character in the film talks like they should – Frank Lucas has to show he is just like every other kingpin since ‘Scarface’ , the young nephew has to go under the influence of the uncle and leave his chances at studying, there has to be part scene where an explosively violent act ruins the whole thing and hints at the corruption of power in the previously-calculating gangster….the examples go on.
Sitting there in the cinema, the feeling the film generates is one of familiarity: there is no sense of wonder, no sense of shock, just a warm, fuzzy feeling of something comfortable and seen before a million times. A paint-the-numbers version of a 1970’s gangster film.
And this is why Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster’ ultimately fails- for nothing having any desire to break the status quo.
There is also a very anticlimactic feel to the end of the movie. All through the film you wait for the meeting between these two characters – and when it finally comes; it fizzles out completely. Suddenly there is none of the tension generated before left: just a feeling of the film plodding to its’ bleedingly obvious end.
You could go see this film – you could go see it this weekend and buy a ticket and watch it in the cinema – or you could just pop in your copy of ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Scarface’ – trust me you would not know the difference.
Oh and do stay after until after the credits – you get to see a scene so ridiculous and out of touch with the rest of the movie, you have to wonder why Ridley Scott put it in.