Review: American Gangster

The trailer for American Gangster was a truly awe inspiring affair. It has a drama, a tension and vivid energy that the film for the most part lacks. All throughout the movie I could not help but imagine how this material might have been interpreted by a more capable director, a Scorcese or a Coppola perhaps. There is nothing wrong about Scott’s Auterial abilities but there isn’t much right either. It’s flat and cannot resist delving into cliche.

In short, his work cannot nearly match the intensity that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe bring to their roles. The movie has an exhilarating scene where Denzel or Frank Lucas, casually shoots a rival drug dealer and goes back to have dinner with his family. It is exhilarating to watch and bristled with the promise of what this movie could have been. Instead, it feels as though the storytelling is afterthought. Despite the virtuoso performance by Denzel, Scott simply does not give the audience anything to hold on to. It lacks not only the operatic ambition of the Departed but ambition in general. The movie wants to tell you this story but refuses to explain why you should care. Sure there’s fantastic moments such as Denzel calmly looking into the fire as his wife’s dreams burn but these are few and far between. Which brings me to the next glaring flaw of this movie, the complete negligence of Russell Crowe.

Here you have an incredible, Oscar winning actor, Russell Crowe. Yet you give him only one scene, the final courtroom scene to display his emotional range. American Gangster could have been a movie about obsessions and rage and the price that you pay to get what you want. However, these deeper themes are only hinted at, Crowe loses his son and Denzel loses his cousin but neither of these events take on the intended weighty significance.

American Gangster is a tragedy. It is a movie that was eagerly awaited by all including me, and while it is not a failure per se, it still cannot match the spine tingling splendor of Denzel’s intensity over strains of Jay-Z’s Heart of the City. This is good entertainment but the Black Godfather has yet to be made.

-Vman

R.H.’s Take:

The trailer was good, wasn’t it? A Jay-Z song that’s sample usage paired with imagery that made you feel the same things a big orchestral doomsday composition with Spider-Man dodging bullets and explosions would make you feel. But hey, that’s what trailers are supposed to do. Anyone see the long, theatrical trailer for What Dreams May Come? Didn’t that make the movie look like the next great cinematic hope? Apparently, nothing of that caliber was achieved. Anyways.

The film American Gangster. First off, let’s focus on the players. Excellent, excellent acting all around. Russel Crowe nails the part as usual (nice accent usage, mate!) and Denzel Washington made me forget about how overrated he is. Cop Richie Roberts’ (Crowe) colleagues are generally well-played. His partner is convincing as a cop who can barely control himself when confronted with drug money. Ted Levine (the PD Captain from TV’s ‘Monk’) decides to play another police captain, sans facial hair. He does well, of course. And who can resist John Hawkes’ boyish charm? And RZA gets the job done; no elaboration is needed. A bad-guy special investigator played by Josh Brolin rules with a mustache of might. Crime king Frank Lucas (Washington) surrounds himself with an irresistible entourage of smooth guys and narcissistic businessmen. Even the small role of Mama Lucas succeeds with the pleasant and kindly Ruby Dee. However, a note to film makers everywhere: Please, Please, Please! For the sake of the good public, NEVER cast T.I. in a role! Horrible, horrible actor who could learn an encyclopedia’s worth of acting tips. I’m willing to say that Jiro Kumagai is a better actor. He probably is! T.I. stands for The Incompetent.

And past acting, Ridley Scott does well in the director’s chair. There is nothing in his style that makes it seem like he has an idiosyncratic style, but Scott utilizes the New York of past setting well to get the tone across. Crowe and Washington are truly the only participants in the film who stand out. Unless you’re a freak for Common, who pulls is off (it’s the cap! It must be the cap).

So, for story. You already know it. Bad guy rises to a power that’s never been seen before. Good guy has personal conflicts while struggling to defeat bad guy. Etc. …

And to get to the point: The film is enjoyable. It’s a good film, no doubt about it. It just doesn’t pack that “punch” that so many films need and so many films say they have. The trailer said, “We’re gonna knock you out with pure cinematic bliss.” Nothing like that is found in the film. But it’s good, though.

American Gangster is a solid film, but does not earn the hype it been the recipient of. The generous acclaim it has garnered is not merited. Stephen Hunter, movie critic for “The Washington Post,” predicts American Gangster will become a modern classic and a line from it will seep into our culture like “Goodbye, Charlie” did so many years ago. Let’s hope not. Like I said before, nothing much really stands out. But it’s a good film, all right. Just not a great one.

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