Thursday, September 18, 2008

Film Review: American Gangster

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Ridley Scott's American Gangster opens with a horrifically brutal prologue. One sees a man tied to a chair, beaten bloody, and having gasoline poured on him. The film's protagonist, played by Denzel Washington, looks on and lights a cigar, throwing the lighter onto the man and immolating him. He then unloads an automatic handgun into the burning body. The character's appearance seems discordant with his actions: he's well-groomed and wearing an elegantly tailored suit. One waits and waits to see how this shocking opening fits in with the rest of the film, but one never finds out. It perversely sets the stage for the film in this: American Gangster is one dramatic set-up after another with no follow-through.

The film is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Washington), a Harlem crime boss who in the 1970s became the biggest importer and distributor of heroin in the U. S. The narrative follows the arc of his rise to power and fall, interweaving it with the story of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an incorruptible New Jersey police detective and eventual district attorney who headed the investigation that brought him down. Along the way, the film contrasts the orderliness of Lucas's life with the messiness of Roberts's, and one sees both men's frustrations in dealing with the corrupt narcotics investigation unit of the New York City police department. The film ends with Lucas and Roberts as allies, with Lucas helping to bring down the corrupt elements of the NYPD in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.

Ridley Scott does a superficially professional job of directing: the action is clearly and often lavishly staged, and there's his trademark attention to detail in the cinematography and production design. But the film's scenes don't seem shaped to get anywhere. The problem may be partly in Steven Zaillian's script: the story's events progress logically, but they never build any narrative intensity. Every time the movie seems to be setting up any kind of dramatic turn--a conflict between characters, a suspenseful twist--it gets dropped almost immediately. There's an attempted hit on Lucas's beauty-queen wife, but nothing comes of it. Lucas brutally beats his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after Huey's carelessness leads to a shakedown by the police, and nothing comes of that either. Roberts coerces an underling in Lucas's organization into wearing a wire, and Scott and Zaillian don't even bother to create any suspense over whether the fellow might get found out.

The biggest wasted opportunity comes with Lucas's confrontation with Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) over Barnes' diluting Lucas's product before putting it out on the street. The film sets up a striking contrast between the dignified Lucas and the obnoxious Barnes, who's portrayed as a petulant, drug-addled buffoon. The scene ends inconclusively, and one expects Lucas to have Barnes killed. Audiences would have relished seeing him go down, in no small part because Gooding quickly reminds one of why he's the single most annoying actor working. But again, nothing comes of it. One can argue that it wouldn't be factually accurate, but given the romanticized portrait of Lucas and the fabrications about Roberts' life--he and his first wife didn't have a child together, so there's no basis for the custody fight the film shows them engaged in--would changing the facts in this instance really have mattered? Scott, Zaillian, and Gooding take serious liberties with their portrayal of Barnes, anyway. I don't think anyone would guess from what's shown here that the character's real-life counterpart was the inspiration for the Wesley Snipes character in New Jack City, or that he was such a smugly insolent media magnet that Jimmy Carter made it a priority for the Justice Department to bring him down.

There isn't one memorable performance in the film. Denzel Washington fares best, partly because of his natural charisma, and partly because his reserve contrasts strongly with the other performers. He's a nobleman among the riff-raff. But there's no shading in the performance, and no dynamic driving it. The only interesting effect he manages is Lucas's tendency to threaten people with such understatement that it come across as a joke. One laughs, but one feels dread as well, as he's so earnest that it's obvious he isn't kidding. Russell Crowe does a creditable job, and there's not a false note anywhere in his portrayal, but there's no dynamism either. Scott has assembled some terrific performers for the supporting cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Carla Gugino, and Ted Levine, but it's easy to forget they're even in the film. (The waste of Ejiofor, one of the most interesting actors to emerge in the last few years, is all but criminal.) Ruby Dee earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as Lucas's mother, but it's obviously a career acknowledgement. The only scene where she makes any kind of impression--when she sharply warns Lucas to be prudent in seeking revenge against his enemies--isn't anything one hasn't seen a hundred times before, and there isn't anything particularly distinctive about it here.

The film reminds one a great deal of Michael Mann's 1995 film Heat. The structure is largely the same: the lives of an ace police detective and an elegant master criminal are depicted as contrasting parallels, and the lines of their narratives build independently until they ultimately intersect in the the film's climax. But Heat gives one what American Gangster doesn't: suspense, dynamic characters, and a story that seems developed instead of summarized. American Gangster is a handsomely realized production, but its good looks are only skin-deep.

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