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American Gangster – A Review

What happened to Ridley Scott? Here’s a man who made Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and… then what? When did his movies stop being a Must See? When did they lose that danger, that avant-garde something, that taking-three-years-to-light-‘em-right…that magic? These days he’s a journeyman. Gorgeous journeys, yes. Well-crafted, certainly. But the movie landscape doesn’t alter with these new films. He used to make movies that influenced movies. Now you’re lucky if you can remember the title of his last film.

American Gangster is the black Scarface, with Denzel Washington playing the Tony Montana part and most of the excitement substituted with “realism”. I put “realism” in inverted commas to try and make it look interesting. This is the typographical equivalent of Ridley Scott shooting a stake-out with a jittery camera. Realism, in movies, is unfortunately quite a lot like life, being boring. What it isn’t is a worthy substitute for drama (that’s why Heat is still the best crime movie in years). Although we get our facts straight with American Gangster (Denzel starts out a bodyguard and maims his way up the ranks of the New York underworld, paralleling the “real” life of convicted drug peddler Frank Lucas) it’s tough to get excited; we don’t care enough about Denzel. Even Russell Crowe, playing the good guy (a hero cop named Richie Roberts), is curiously muted. Neither actor comes near the fire-eyed intensity of DeNiro or Pacino in Heat.

Take Denzel. He’s been doing the tough guy schtick since Training Day made some money. Time was, he was Sidney Poitier: thoughtful, dignified, not given to violence. These days, he’s Shaft. Denzel Washington is probably one of the best actors in mainstream movies, but this is not (sorry Oscar voters) not not Not his best work. He acts like the movie: on autopilot. His Frank Lucas is a clever man, a ruthless man and a psychotic (when he has to be), but I just can’t bring myself to add “memorable” to that list. He’s too much like other men Denzel Washington has played before. There’s a photocopied quality to his villainy. Even watching him in his most startling scene (when he executes a rival on a crowded street in Harlem), it feels like watching an Oscar winner play bad the way it won him an Oscar in 2002.

Russell Crowe is busy underplaying for most of American Gangster. He wears crappy clothes, sports a beer-gut, keeps his hair mussed. Richie Roberts seems to be a pretty interesting character, from what the audience gleans: he’s self-righteous, he’s philandering –the sort of white knight who cheats on the princess and lectures the other knights when they don’t slay as many dragons as him. He’s noble – don’t get me wrong. But he’s noble the way people are often noble in real life, at the expense of being nice. He could even have been someone an audience would have watched excitedly, if Crowe didn’t underplay to such an extent that even Richie’s asshole-tendencies seem dull.  What happened to the Russell Crowe who rampaged through Los Angeles in L.A. Confidential?

American Gangster livens up a little when Denzel goes to ’Nam. Frank Lucas’s genius (as a drug pusher) was to eliminate the middle-man, which he accomplished by buying heroin direct from the Vietnamese. The movie has a lot of sly, Nixon-era fun with the irony of the U.S. military making money off Vietcong dope, and even Denzel gets a little of his mojo back when he’s deep in the jungle, brokering deals with Charlie. It’s never exactly Apocalypse Now, but at least the ’Nam interlude serves to shake things up in American Gangster.  The movie needs ‘Nam to dirty it, make it face its compromised morality.

Oh Ridley! What become of that belligerent Yorkshire soul? Time was, Ridley Scott was a byword for directorial despotism. Alien, Blade Runner… his casts couldn’t have hated him any worse. But he got something out of them. Maybe that was why they hated him. Bully that he was; he knew what he was doing. There is a reach to his early movies – a sense of daring. There is never a single frame of American Gangster that just goes for it (alas). And sure, people speak well of Ridley now, as I’m sure they do Frank Lucas. Both are reformed characters, socially acceptable nowadays… they’ve done their time, relinquished infamy. But they aren’t worth watching now. American Gangster is a polished, professional, utilitarian gangster movie, about as wild as a housecat.  It plays too safe. 

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