2,153Ridley Scott ventures out onto the mean streets of a seventies-set New York, strutting through its crime-rife, corrupted sleaze with the rugged dependability of Russell Crowe (in his third outing with the director) on one arm and the imposingly ruthless Denzel Washington on the other. Based on a magazine article “The Return Of Superfly” by Marc Jacobson, Steve Zaillian's screenplay tells the true story of Frank Lucas, a small-time enforcer who takes over his boss's lower-rung Harlem crime operation after his mentor's death and transforms it into the biggest heroin empire in New York, even muscling out the usual suspects of the Italian mafia and the Irish mobsters in the process. Cutting out the middle-man and getting his 100 per cent pure product straight from the suppliers in South East Asia - cunningly using the logistics, equipment and distraction of the Vietnam War as cover - he can keep his prices down and flood the market with a much superior drug. Frank Lucas was a true entrepreneur, bringing his own large and impoverished family over from North Carolina to live in his luxurious mansion and, in a Robin Hood style that he carried over from his former boss, giving back some of his proceeds to the gutter-dwelling population of the streets. But, despite three-quarters of the New York Police Department being on the take, Detective Richie Roberts, a veritable crusader on the Force, makes it his mission to take Lucas down.
“This is my home. My country. Frank Lucas don't run from nobody. This is America.”
As Lucas, Denzel Washington is utterly superb. I'm on record as saying that although I think the actor is very talented, I tend to find him playing more with nuance - visual ticks, expressions and “likeable” mannerisms, etc - to portray a role than actually digging deep into the character. But in things like Training Day and even Man On Fire for Ridley Scott's brother, Tony, he revealed a slow unpeeling of character that was impossible not to be impressed with. And the same can be said for his performance here. In fact, this may well be the best role he has had. Starting off with an implacable stoicism and steely determination to wrestle the American Dream from a racist society and stake his claim for control of his own neighbourhood, Washington's Lucas is a man governed by principle and ethics. He may be doing “bad things” but to him it is business and these extreme measures simply go with the territory. His family is sacred to him and he becomes a loyal husband, God-fearing and Mother-loving (and he's got a German Shepherd, too!). Washington gradually allows character and soul to drip through the harsh and defiant exterior. When faced with guns and violence he displays no fear whatsoever, just a grave and all-pervasive wall of calm resilience. But when that threat concerns his kith and kin, particularly his wife, played by Lymari Nadal, he rips through that cool veneer to present us with a truly visceral and instinctively vicious inner self. More than that, he reveals a certain core of vulnerability and fear. “They tried to kill my wife!” he roars in the face of Armand Assante's well-heeled mobster, literally exploding from the screen in a fit of royal rage. But it is likely that his portrayal of Frank will best be remembered for his broad-daylight shooting of a surly rival, his matter-of-fact dealing with his Asian supplier, the instant classic scene of “carpet-cleaning” and the cleverly manipulative coffee-cup confrontation he has with Crowe's dogged copper.
“Don't punish me for being honest.”
Russell Crowe is typically excellent, but with a role that is actually quite underwritten and with its emphasis on being likeable rather than hard-bitten, it will come as no surprise to find that it is Denzel Washington who walks away with the lion's share of the movie. Of course, this goes with the turf, though, doesn't it? It is always the bad guy who steals the show. Yet even despite this genre-staple, Zaillian's screenplay clearly favours Frank Lucas over Richie Roberts. The glory and the power are what it is about and the things that must be done to achieve them are far more intriguing than the admittedly quite perfunctory and thumbnail investigative work that Richie and his hand-picked squad undertake. But there are moments when the lumpy-faced actor really shines. A pariah amongst his own back-handed colleagues for actually having principles and doing the “right thing”, he is also constantly battling his ex-wife for custody of their son, thus the philandering Richie faces many episodes in court and Crowe's weary visage is extremely adept at convincing us of the beleaguered cop's brow-beaten status. There's a terrific scene when he simply hears enough character assassination and turns to face his scowling antagonist with such a hangdog, defeated air that it would be a hard heart indeed not to feel for him. It is also somewhat surprising to see Crowe not looking so tough in the film. The eyes do simmer with intensity beneath those roof-angled brows, but the volatility that we all know he is capable of is never allowed to break through, except in one very brief scene of inter-departmental interference. After The Good Year, the poorly received drama-comedy he did for Scott the year before, Crowe seems intent on revealing a different persona up on the screen than the one that has gotten him into so much trouble off it. Even his scuzzy outlaw in the recent 3.10 To Yuma - where, once again, it is the bad guy who waltzes off with the picture - there was a clear effort to come across as charismatic more than dangerous. But you can't help but wish he had more ferocity, especially in his dealings with the likes of Josh Brolin's slick-haired and contemptible bent cop, Trupo.
Both actors had almost unlimited access to their real-life counterparts who, in one of life's biggest ironies, are now close friends, and this depth of intimacy surfaces throughout the film. Though, even if Scott's depiction doesn't exactly glamorise the life of a hoodlum - there are constant dangers all around even if you are the King of Harlem - it still paints the day-to-day existence with enough high-jinx, jive and cool to make Frank the kind of guy you would, perhaps, envy. His entourage are good value, too. Beside the excellent Chiwetal Ejiofor as one of his brothers, look out for RZA, Cuba Gooding Jnr and even the great Jon (Miller's Crossing) Polito.
“You think you're going to Heaven because you're honest ... but you're not. You're going to the same Hell as the crooked cops you can't stand!”
American Gangster isn't in the same crime-movie league as, say, Scarface or Goodfellas, or even its era-set compatriots The French Connection or Serpico, to which illustrative and trend-setting family this entry definitely belongs. Scott's visual dexterity is somehow subdued, the imagery lacking in the pizzazz that you might expect. Mind you, the film does posses that gritty seventies feel, even if does on occasion seem to wander into a TV-show style of easy framing and set-up. Scott doesn't want to wow us with the usually snap-taut editing of regular cut 'n' paster Pietro Scalia, who still keeps things moving at brisk pace, or a camera that roves right into the heart of the action, like in Gladiator or Black Hawk Down. Barring a very effective gun-battle-cum-foot-pursuit through a tenement/drug factory, the film is content to sit back and leave its protagonists front and centre and, even if the dialogue is unlikely to worry Scorsese in the eminently quotable stakes, allow them to live and breathe in relative space and ease, conversing in breezy tones or barely-veiled animosity as the situation dictates. Indeed, the film is perhaps a tad too measured for its own good. It walks - and walks with a swagger, I might add - but it doesn't seem eager to run. When the violence comes - and some of it is indeed quite horrible (the very opening shot has some poor unfortunate trussed-up, doused with petrol and set ablaze) - it erupts quickly and is then gone. Personally, I found the countless scenes of junkies shooting-up far more disturbing than the random spots of bullets and batterings. But Scott is going for an epic scope here, even if it is one that still somehow feels linear and intimate. He doesn't want the grand canvas of The Godfather, he wants to spin things out like The Departed, only far less self-consciously. Richie's investigation takes years, yet we don't necessarily feel the passage of this time as we watch back-alley shakedowns, covert surveillance, nude dope-cutters and fluctuating fashions and facial hair that could have strolled in from an episode of Life On Mars. Likewise, Washington's curious ageless face (can you believe he's now 52!) doesn't really reveal the experience and rise to power that the real Lucas would have had etched indelibly onto his features. Check out the early scene of a younger Lucas cradling his dying boss in his arms and then compare it to the final image of him, years later. Slightly greying temples but, other than that, no difference whatsoever. What's your secret, Denzel?
What is slightly trite, but admittedly something of a necessary evil, is the constant use of real-life footage from the conflict in Vietnam being broadcast on each and every TV screen that Scott uses to symbolise Frank's rise to infamy and the subsequent obstacles that he faces. Famous imagery of napalm strikes and the Fall of Saigon may parallel the moods and scenarios that his Empire finds itself in, but the trick can't help but feel contrived and rather heavy-handed. Still, American Gangster is a worthwhile addition to a genre that just can't help churning out as many near-classics as actual bona-fide greats. It might not scale the heights you wished it would, but Scott's latest in a career of genre-hopping is certainly terrific entertainment and whistles through its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Plus, it's great to see gravel-voiced Ted (Buffalo Bill) Levine still cropping up, too.
Already looking forward to it on HD or BD.
PictureTheatrically, American Gangster is presented at 1.85:1. Its palette is deliberately downplayed and heavy with browns and yellows. Use of light and shadow during the interiors was not as strikingly evoked as I would have thought coming from a master of ambient mood such as Ridley Scott, but there is still much to commend. That trip to the jungles of Vietnam is lush and colourful, reminiscent of the similar chapter in Cimino's Year Of The Dragon, and the seedy nightclubs of both Harlem and Saigon are steeped in oozing neon and smoke.
Visually, the film may be a departure for Scott, yet it retains its eye-grabbing immediacy by virtue of its performances and incidents. The photography from Harris Savides does contain some elements of hand-held camerawork, but this is most definitely not of The Bourne Ultimatum variety of epileptic immersion - so you are unlikely to miss, or be confused by any of the action.
SoundScott's films often have a wildly detailed sound design and American Gangster is no exception. The street sequences are alive with ambience - vehicles and chatter - and there are a couple of great entrances to clubs and, of course, the Big Fight in Madison Square Garden when the soundscape is literally filled with atmospheric aural scene-setting. Gunfire is nice and loud and there are some great booming shotgun blasts towards the final act. Dialogue is very well integrated and there shouldn't be any problems hearing the threats and verbal sparring taking place in nightclubs, diners and alleyways.
The score from Marc Streitenfeld isn't especially memorable, although some of his cues do crank up the tension, and Scott's choice of music from the era isn't as catchy or as knowing as, say, Scorsese's is with similar material. It is a lively enough experience at the flicks, acoustically speaking, but we are not talking about bombastic, seat-rattling effects. This is a much more moderated approach that keeps its pyrotechnics limited to small, lightning-quick episodes of jolting brilliance.
VerdictIf the film feels vaguely disappointing then it is only because expectations possibly run a little too high. Although certainly an engrossing story that showcases Washington's turn-on-a-dime commitment to investing in a role, the film all too often hovers just below the level of electrifying when, with Crowe butting heads in there with him and Scott calling the shots, you just know that this could have been a classic. That said, American Gangster is a rollicking ride through the cool but brutal reign of Frank Lucas that pulls no punches but also manages to sit you squarely on the fence regarding your feelings towards the drugs kingpin who took Harlem by storm and adhered to a strict code of family and country-loving ethics. The Devil is a gentleman, so they say ... and this story makes it abundantly clear that the good guys are hardly the knights they pretend to be, either. Ridley Scott on three-quarter power still puts him way ahead of the crowd.
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