Sunday, January 06, 2008

American Gangster

The verdict: Thoroughly enjoyable. 'Serpico' meets 'Blow', with Ridley Scott directing Denzel as a bad guy. At 150 minutes, perhaps a little long for some, but not for me.

The rating: 7/10

American Gangster... now here's a genre that's been done before. Da Palma's 'Scarface' charted the ultra-violent rise of a disenfranchised immigrant to 1970's American drug overlord with hees leetle friend. Michael Mann's 'Heat' was a cop and robber character study, toying with the audience's desire to root for the good guy. Sidney Lumet's 'Serpico' was also set in the 70's, and focussed just on the cops, with Pacino this time surrounded by corrupt cops, and very definitely the one to root for. However, the gangster genre was arguably defined immutably by Coppola's 'Godfather' trilogy, and rubber-stamped for good measure by Scorcese with 'Goodfellas'. (Jeez, Al Pacino's made some good movies! - Ed)

So where do you go from there? What can even Ridley Scott bring to the table that we haven't already seen before? Well, casting Denzel Washington as the ganster is an excellent start, and pitting Russell Crowe against him as the embattled moral crusader surrounded by dirty cops is another plus, but when the story is based on fact, well, that adds even further to the mystique.

Set in 1970's New York, the drug enforcement agency is riddled with corruption, and heroin is the drug of choice on the streets. The good guys are far from clean, with institutional payoffs the order of the day, from beat cops to judges. Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe) makes a name for himself in the force as a bit of a Serpico when he and his partner turn in a million dollars in drug money, rather than distributing it around 'the guys'. As a result, he becomes a pariah, and is eventually recruited for a special task force to tackle the drug problem, without involving dirty cops.

Meanwhile, Lucas (Washington) is importing heroin directly from Vietnam, and is bringing heroin to the streets of New York that is purer than his competitors and at a lower price. Interestingly, Lucas dissociates himself from the evil that he purveys with the conviction and eloquently persuasive language of the successful businessman. He is giving his customers the product they demand, at higher quality, and at the right price. They don't care who he is, any more than he cares who is in charge of the national dairy board, right?

The inevitable rise of Lucas to crown prince of Harlem is charted alongside Det. Roberts travails to find the man behind this new heroin product spreading like wildfire on American streets, known as 'blue magic'. Lucas proves hard to catch however, as he spurns does the ostentatious pimp stylings of many of his competitors, and leads a relatively austere existence, albeit with more of the trappings of wealth than De Niro's character in Heat, for example.

This involving story trundles along at a nice pace, and we're in the hands of Ridley Scott here for god's sake, so the length of the movie (two and a half hours) wasn't really an issue for me. The only issue I had with 'American Gangster' was the scope. It is attempting to be an expansive epic in the same vein as 'Goodfellas', but is not quite as tight. The twin track of the stories means that two central characters require equal, and separate development for the story to work, and essentially each character story could have been the lead in a movie of his own. Frank Lucas' story would work in the same way as 'Blow', which was a very similar story of a man named George Jung, the guy credited with the rise of Cocaine in New York in the 1970's. Meanwhile, alongside this, as I've said, Roberts' story is similar to that of Pacino's character in 'Serpico'.

Putting all this aside for a moment, 'American Gangster' is a very enjoyable movie in it's own right. Denzel is excellent as the nuanced bad guy, and should definitely experiment a little more with this type of character. Russell Crowe is also in his area of expertise here, as the troubled good guy, and reminded me of how great he was in 'The Insider'. The setting is excellently rendered on screen, and I wouldn't want to have lived in the projects or anything, but 1970's harlem is a great backdrop for a movie like this.

As a footnote, Cuba Gooding Jr. is in this movie, and he doesn't suck! Unbelievable though it may seem, readers, I shit you not!

This streak of originality aside, although American Gangster is a very enjoyable movie, and will be in most critics 'top 10' lists of the year, it's unfortunaely not imbued with enough originality or style of its own to topple any of the existing giants of the genre.

1 comment:

patrick said...

American Gangster reminded me yet again what a versatile actor Russel Crowe is… plus it's pretty clever how Ridley Scott makes viewers love the bad guy and dislike the good guy only to turn that around by the end of the movie.

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