Friday, November 02, 2007

"American Gangster" -- * * *

Though never reaching true greatness, "American Gangster" is thoroughly difficult to dislike, and remarkably consistent in its very-goodness. I admit, I didn't really want to like this movie-- its self-assuredness practically oozed from the trailer, and its familiarity seemed "easy" and almost lazy, like its success was a foregone conclusion. While that still may be the case (it promises to be a monster hit), it is my duty to report that whatever success finds "Gangster" is wholly deserved. It doesn't pop with excitement like a "Departed" or a "Goodfellas" (or even a "Heat")-- its shortfall of greatness is chiefly due to its lack of dramatic tension, which those films had in spades-- but it's a slick, entertaining and extremely well put-together procedural.

"Gangster" follows the kinda-sorta-parallel stories of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Jersey good cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) in the early 1970s as the Vietnam war drags on. The film details Lucas's rise to power after he cuts out the middle man, traveling to Bangkok himself to work out a personal deal with the drug producers, and using United States Army to transport his product into the U.S. This enables Frank to have the purest heroin in New York and the ability to sell it cheaper than any of his competing dealers. There's violence here to be certain, but for a film with "Gangster" in the title, it's not a terribly violent affair; violence is only depicted as an occasional casualty of business.

When we meet Richie, he's (violently) serving subpoenas, leading him to the single act that will define his career, and his character in the context of this film: finding $1 million in unmarked drug money, and turning it in. It instantly establishes him as an honest cop, but also serves as a running joke throughout the movie as other characters find out about it. After being transferred to form his own narcotics team, Richie eventually becomes aware of Lucas and trains his team's sights on him. All the while, his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is suing him for custody of his son.

Denzel is very good as Lucas, keeping a level-headed air of menace and charm around him no matter whether he's carving a turkey or shooting a man in the street in broad daylight. As an actor, he's rarely, if ever, exciting, but he's entirely believable here, and Lucas is likely to become one of the defining roles of his career. On the way out of the theater, I heard people using words like "badass" and "awesome" about his performance, and I suppose they're not incorrect. This isn't an electrifying or exciting role like the one he had in "Training Day," but it smartly combines his nice guy persona with an edge he rarely gets to display.

Though Washington is worth praising for keeping Lucas a morally ambiguous figure and never allowing him to slide into "likable" territory (Lucas was a pretty awful guy), it's worth noting that my (mostly black) screening audience still ate up everything he did. Someone shouted out "Yeah, Denzel!" as the lights were going down before the movie even started, and everything from the opening shot of Lucas setting a man on fire to the final shot of [SPOILER DELETED] got applause. I'm officially convinced that Denzel Washington could rape a child on screen and his fanbase would still cheer and whoop it up as the sodomy was commencing.

Crowe is quite strong here as well, overcoming the fact that he's relatively miscast. As a Jewish Jersey boy, Crowe strains credibility occasionally, but that almost makes his strength and conviction even more impressive. He plays the hell out of Richie, particularly in his later sequences, and the actor makes him as interesting a figure as Frank even though he's not given nearly as flashy or compelling material to work with. It's a nice counterbalance to his performance in "3:10 to Yuma" where he was (though enjoyable) mostly lazy and getting by on his own charisma.

Some people have complained about the child-custody stuff, bemoaning that it belongs in another movie, but personally, I think the complaints are unfounded. It only takes up 5-10 minutes of screentime, at most, and I thought it gave a bit more character development to a film that doesn't have much of it. A flaw of the screenplay is that we never really get to know much about either Frank or Richie as people, and this subplot is at least an attempt to rectify some of that.

Though the crowds will line up for Washington and Crowe, the movie is unquestionably stolen by Josh Brolin (and his mustache) as a sinister cop looking for a payoff at every turn. The part is somewhat one-note-- he's pretty much an unrepentant asshole-- but every time Brolin's on screen, the movie drips with sleaze and menace, and we can't take our eyes off him; his volatility and dick-headedness just radiate. Denzel gets to play the titular "Gangster," but Brolin is the real villain of the movie, causing significant problems for both Lucas and Roberts, and significant pleasure for the audience. After a few years under-the-radar, Brolin is having a terrific comeback year; despite his part's insignificance in "In the Valley of Elah," he was the best thing about "Planet Terror" and is phenomenal in "No Country for Old Men" (opening next week). After the 2007 he's having, one can only hope 2008 or 2009 will bring a Brolin-headlined flick.

While not everyone gets the juicy roles to bite into that these three do, "Gangster" boasts an awesome ensemble cast. Not necessarily huge names, but a plethora of skilled B-listers and solid character actors (including a few we haven't seen for a while) pop up here in a handful of scenes. Cuba Gooding, Jr., Clarence Williams III, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ted Levine, Roger Bart, John Hawkes, RZA, Joe Morton, John Ortiz, Common, Armand Assante and Kevin Corrigan are just some who show up to make you point at the screen and go "heyyy, that guy!" I was most excited by the presence of former Coen Brothers regular, Jon Polito, but hey, that's just me.

Ridley Scott, given his past filmography, doesn't initially seem like a natural fit for this material, but he acquits himself rather nicely. The film's direction and momentum are a huge component to its success, and while it doesn't have any big, iconic "money" scenes that everyone will be talking about, it's almost as impressive that it maintains its consistency as a sleek, cool entertainment for the entirety of its 145 minutes (sans credits).

Even so, there are more than a few bravura sequences Scott stages here that are tremendously effective. Though the action fiends in the audience will probably cite the high-adrenaline raid/shoot-out in the third act, I was most struck by two integral montages in the film. One intercuts the Lucas family's happy Thanksgiving dinner with the Thanksgivings of his clients whose drug-addled lives have been destroyed by his success, and the other, I won't ruin the contents of, except to say it comes near the film's close and is perfectly scored to "Amazing Grace."

A big part of what I liked so much about the movie is that it takes its time getting things done, and doesn't rush to bring our two leads together simply because it has to. We're more than halfway through before Richie is even aware Frank exists, and the movie's nearly over by the time the two come face-to-face. When they finally do, the pair of actors have superb chemistry and almost make you wish we could see a buddy movie featuring these guys. The film also boasts a superbly hummable late-60s, early-70s soundtrack including "Hold On (I'm Coming)", and one of my favorites, "Across 110th Street".

Resembling a less lighthearted "Catch Me If You Can," "American Gangster" is sure to be a box office hit-- every white, black, young and old person I know wants to see it--but honestly, I hope that's all it is. While it's a thoroughly entertaining, well-paced, well-done piece of work, this really isn't (or at least shouldn't be) Oscar fare. Nonetheless, it's absolutely worth your time, and offers more ambiguity (including its final shot) and substance to chew on than the typical film of this ilk. It may not be gangbusters, but as someone who admittedly entered with an axe to grind, I came away satisfied and then some.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: As discussed, I doubt Oscars are in the film's future, but if its strongly vocal supporters win out, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Denzel Washington) are feasibly within grasp.


Blogger JS said...

Wow, someone else shares my comparison to "Catch Me If You Can"
regarding this movie.

IMDB now has this as the 100th greatest movie ever made last time I checked. Ugh.

1:26 AM  

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