November 4, 2007

Movie Review: American Gangster

If there is one movie that has received a ton of hype this Fall it would have to be Bee Movie, with the outside the box advertising that was on each and every one of NBC's primetime shows. A close second would have to be Ridley Scott's American Gangster. This crime drama has had Oscar buzz surrounding it ever since the first trailer reached the big screen, and likely before (I can't remember exactly). It has a strong Oscar littered pedigree with a pair of Oscar winners in the lead roles with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, an Oscar winning writer in Steve Zaillian, and Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott at the helm. Not to be forgotten are Oscar winners in editing, art direction, and costume design. Lots of gold among this crew. So, they may not have had quite the incessant advertising that Bee Movie had leading up to its release, but it definitely has more mantle bling. Does that add up to a good movie? Well, yes and no.

The production history is almost as interesting as the movie itself, not really, but it is interesting. The story begins back in 2004, Denzel was signed to play Frank Lucas and Benicio Del Toro was set to play Richie Roberts. Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) was all set to direct. All of them had pay or play contracts, meaning that they would get paid regardless of whether or not the film was actually made (Denzel made $20 million and Benico $5 million, not sure about Fuqua). That fell apart and the project was shelved. Then Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) was brought in to write and direct with Don Cheadle and Joaquin Phoenix in line for the leads. Finally, Ridley Scott was brought in to direct, and Denzel was resigned (and paid another $20 million), with the other lead down to Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt (a role obviously going to Crowe). There are other interesting notes that show supporting roles targeted for the likes of Ray Liotta, John C. Reilley, and James Gandolfini. It's surprising it got made at all with all that went on.

Now, I am sure you are curious to know what I thought of the movie. You do, don't you? Of course you do!

Let me start by saying that the film is good, not great. There seemed to be a lock of any real substance or depth. American Gangster is a fascinating story of true crime, after going through a Hollywood filter. As I sat in the theater, letting the images wash over me, I was completely engrossed by the story that was unfolding before me but when I left I felt a little unsatisfied.

American Gangster tells the story of Frank Lucas (Washington), the inspirational tale of a man who works his way up through the ranks to become a master businessman. He went against the odds and did something no other black man had accomplished. So what if his business just happened to be the drug trade in Harlem. On the other side of the coin is Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe), an man ostracized due to his professional integrity who vows to take Lucas down.

There is an interesting contrast between the lives of Lucas and Roberts. Both of them have worked hard for everything they have earned, however their lives appear to be greatly at odds beyond the simplistic explanation of being on different sides of the law. Lucas is portrayed as a strong family man who puts equal effort into his work and his family, always making sure to take care of his family, and taking his mother to church every Sunday. At the same time, he is the ultimate professional and quite ruthless at protecting it. Then there is Richie Roberts, when it comes to work, he is as straight as they come, evidenced by his turning in nearly $1 million in cash that was seized. You see, the "normal" thing to do would be to keep it, maybe split it with the guys. When it comes to business ethics, the two see eye to eye, save for the legality of said business. The difference lies in the home lives of the respective individuals. Richie is going through a messy divorce, he is never around for his son, and just makes due.

Which one is the more admirable of the two? The cop who does all the right things on the job but suffers at personal matters or the drug kingpin who displays much love for his family, never elaving them behind? American Gangster seems to play up Denzel as the good guy, the guy to be respected and cheered when things go his way. Frankly, it did make me a little uncomfortable the way that Lucas' lifestyle was glamorized. Perhaps I am misinterpreting it, but that is how I saw it.

It was interesting to see how Lucas began as a driver/debt collector for Harlem's boss Bumpy Johnson, and following Bumpy's death takes it upon himself to take the lessons learned under years of Bumpy guidance and step up. He forges a new path for himself and in turn it pays off, allowing him to become the boss noone expected to to ever see.

Likewise it was interesting to watch Richie Roberts go about his routine. When he isn't chasing down leads or going to court for his divorce hearings, he is at night school studying to become a lawyer. He may be a little rough around the edges and not quite cut out for family life, but he has a tenacious belief in law and order, never backing down and going that extra mile to uncover the big picture.

Overall, the film is interesting. It has a definite sense of style, even if that sense of style is to believe it has a style. Does that make sense? It is aware of its attempts to be stylish. It is because of this self-awareness that the picture falters. It wants to be an important movie, but it fails to inject the character depth needed. Yes, the performances were strong and the story interesting, but I feel as if the surface has barely been scratched on what it could have been.

Bottomline. Yes, see this movie. Denzel and Crowe give very good, if deja vu-inducing performances. The cinematography and direction are good. There is an illusion of depth, but it is just an entertaining half character study. The Oscar buzz is sitl there, though I doubt it is completely deserving of it. Still, you could do much worse in movie choice for the weekend. One last note, I did like the ending, it was not what I expected.



Anonymous said...

American Gangster reminds me yet again what a versatile actor Russel Crowe is… plus Ridley Scott deftly leads us into loving the bad guy and disliking the good guy only to flip that around by the end of the movie... very clever.

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