Thursday, November 8, 2007

American Gangster - Review

Warning: this is a sprawing, "epic", stream-of-consciousness piece on "American Gangster." To steal from Gregg Easterbrook, "Warning: May contain review-like substance."

Take two of the best actors of the last 25 years, Academy award winners to boot, a director who has a lot of scalps on the wall, a big budget and plenty of runtime (2:40) and what do you get? A solid if long movie. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are two of the most compelling on screen presences in recent history.

Washington's aura has grown over the last decade and he seems reluctant to leave its protective halo anymore. Russell Crowe is still the consummate acting professional. The man who played Jeffery Wigand, John Nash, Maximus and Richie Roberts is able to take on these persona completely. I don't see Russell Crowe playing characters, I see three dimensional characters who bear a striking resemblance to that actor Russell Crowe. Denzel is Denzel first, and has been for many years. One exception to this phenomenon was his role in "Philadelphia." Be that as it may the movies that AG most invite comparison to are "The Godfather" and "Scarface." The Godfather is rightly mythologized and straight comparisons are no longer possible. It's very dialogue and various scenes have become part of the American lingua franca, so we'll leave that one alone. Scarface is an apt comparison and one that AG actively seeks.

Start with the movie posters for both:
Clearly, we're inviting comparisons . Tony Montana is caught between the dark and the light (not really, but that's what the poster implies), Washington and Crowe are the dark and light respectively. Now here's my thought, if you invite the comparison be it on your head. For instance, don't call a movie Catwoman, bank on its cache with the fanboy crowd and then cry "it's just a movie and you get to see Halle Berry in a tight outfit" when they complain about how you've desecrated a rich, complex, formidable, empowered female character whose origin (Spring 1940) pre-dates Wonder Woman (Dec 1941). In that case call it "Killer Kitty" and be done with it.
Denzel Washington is playing with house money, he knows it and it shows. Half the battle for this actor is showing up and delivering with some professionalism. He does, and it works and moves along the piece, but it doesn't lift the movie. Even the violent scenes are curiously sterile, especially in comparison to what you'd see in Scarface. Washington's character "Frank Lucas" never feels embattled. One day he goes to Southeast Asia, befriends a drug baron and then in the next few scenes we see he's become wealthy beyond imagination. He opens up a club and meets and marries Ms. Puerto Rico played by Lymari Nadal. Their lack of on-screen chemistry is palpable, by the way. I'm sure the 24 year age difference between the actors doesn't help. It's not always Bogey and Bacall. To be fair, Lucas was around 15 years older than his bride to be when they met but in real life, clearly, they had chemistry, Washington & Nadal? Not so much.
We are told (not shown) that he has displaced the competition. Where was the epic rise to power? If you're making an epic length movie, give us an epic story, give us broad themes, multiple intertwining plots, an all encompassing story arc. We only get some of that.
Richie Roberts' story is more interestingly told. We see that an honest cop doesn't mean a good person, it just means you're an honest cop (that's rare apparently though, so let's give some credit for that). However, his honesty in a difficult environment also allows him to see truths, unpleasant or otherwise when presented. It's a kind of introspection that Lucas can never allow himself or his family, particularly his mother. Crowe brings all the nuance, complexity and ambiguity that is best about characters who aren't pure but are trying hard to do the right thing. It's a very solid performance and Crowe left it on the court.
When a movie seems to have all the pieces but doesn't quite come together or deliver as it feels it should, blame the director or the producer. The movie looks great, Harlem feels like it should in that era and no pains have been spared to make it look right. Ridley Scott has delivered a very good, solid and entertaining movie, but it's not going to knock on the movie pantheon. To reference my buddy when talking about A-Rod, "he's not just Hall of Fame, he's Justice League." This movie is hall of fame, but it's not Justice League.

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