American Gangster **
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Steven Zaillian
Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas
Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Huey Lucas
Josh Brolin as Detective Trupo
Lymari Nadal as Eva
Ted Levine as Lou Toback
Roger Guenveur Smith as Nate
John Hawkes as Freddie Spearman
RZA as Moses Jones
Carla Gugino as Laurie Roberts
Ruby Dee as Mama Lucas
157 Minutes(Rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality. )
Over the years, Denzel Washington has made a name for himself by playing rather tough and strong movie characters. And while he is very strong at playing the in-charge and commanding type, I can't help but feel like he's becoming type casted. After his Oscar winner role as a dirty cop in "Training Day," he went on to play a cop in "Out of Time," "Deju Vu," "Inside Man," and "Man on Fire." Hell, even in "The Manchurian Candidate" he was playing a rather detective like figure. Now with "American Gangster," the new film by Ridley Scott, Washington is going on the other side of the table-in this one he's playing a gangster. And yet I still saw the same old Denzel-the one who I enjoy, but at the same wished that he actually explored other roles from time to time. But lets get that out of the way and talk about Ridley Scott's new, and very disappointing, new crime film "American Gangster."
Now, Scott's all the rage at the moment, with the new cut of his excellent "Blade Runner" now out in theatres. And after the masterpiece "Matchstick Men," he returned with a rather lackluster "Kingdom of Heaven," and the under seen, but decent if you put it in a certain perspective as you watch it, "A Good Year." "American Gangster" was the film that was supposed to put him back on the map-there was even talk of Oscars. And even though it is finding a strong audience that likes it, I felt that it was a half-hearted attempt at making a new crime epic-directly on the heels of last years terrific "The Departed." Now these are two different movies, but "The Departed" was masterfully made-with characters filled with flaws and heroism, with a plot that caught you from the beginning, and a director that knew what he was doing with the genre. "American Gangster" distances you from the characters and their actions, and when its over you know that time has passed and you shrug it off-like a blase meal at a fancy restaurant.
Washington plays Frank Lucas, who takes over a crime syndicate in the late 60's after the man in charge suffers from a heart attack. Frank begins a drug operation involving drugs from South America, and he slowly builds himself up an empire. A family man as well as a businessman (who doesn't even shy from killing a man right in the middle of a crowded street before returning to a diner to finish his breakfast), Frank ends up buying his mother a new mansion, and his brothers and cousins begin to work for him. At the same time we meet up and coming policeman/lawyer, Richie Roberts-played by Scott vet Russell Crowe. Richie is suffering from his ex-wife trying to gain full custody of their son, and when he isn't fooling around with his lawyer or a random stewardess, he is trying to hunt down Lucas. Somewhat of a joke for turning in over a million dollars in unmarked bills after finding it, Richie isn't regarded very well with the investigation, but manages to equip himself with a team to track down Frank and bring him down.
What we get is a rather standard cat and mouse chase-one without much tension or without anything to really allow the audience to give a damn. You would think that a film with a 157 minute running time would allow us to feel like we get to know the characters-and the tacked on subplot regarding Crowe's family does not really count for character development, especially when they disappear in the middle of the film. The ending also seems extremely rushed-it all coming to a climax very suddenly-but I guess when a film doesn't really have a very interesting story structure, it would be hard to figure out when its going to end. They pack the supporting cast with a bunch of actors who appear in and out for a few minutes before going away, including Cuba Gooding Jr, Armand Assante (who was brilliant in "California Dreamin'", a film I saw at TIFF, but is rather wooden here), and Roger Bart, just to name a few. I will give credit to some strong details in Steven Zaillian's script, which is ironic as he did manage to destroy by favorite novel "All the King's Men" just a year ago. There were a few neat facts I didn't know-such as women packing drugs having to do it in the nude so as to ensure that they do not steal anything. It seems like a lot of effort went into trying to capture the realism of crime operations, but not a lot went into character or even an interesting story.
I'm not trying to say that "American Gangster" is a terrible film, just a rather mediocre installment in the crime genre. Scott certainly doesn't have a very consistent record in my book, and I still believe his best film was the under seen "Matchstick Men," in which all the pieces seem to fit. I feel like Scott was trying to put a certain amount of emphasis on Washington and Crowe's performances, which are rather generic and nothing special. The two don't even finally appear on screen together until the very last few minutes, and even doesn't really impress. I found the film tedious and distant, never fully involving you and also never really seeming to care. It's a rather disappointing work in what should have been one of the year's best films-and instead I forgot it as it was happening.