Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Gang ain't here

American Gangster [R]
Grade: D

American Gangster is about the type of slick, powerful criminal lord against whom police have trouble making an indictment. So I’ll write one for them.

The charges:

Count 1: American Gangster is an interesting two-segment Dateline NBC feature that Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zallian mistakenly stretch into an urban crime epic. It has about 45 minutes of interesting story and two-and-a-half hours of celluloid. The story of Russell Crowe’s incorruptible drug unit detective is particularly layered in uninteresting, unnecessary subplots (the divorce drama, the cop-criminal friendship, etc.) with little payoff. You feel as if they made it that long because, dammit, that’s how long this type of film runs.

Count 2: It takes two well-established genres – the gangster film (Think The Godfather or Scarface.) and the police corruption drama (Think Serpico or The Departed.) – and finds nothing new in either. Nor is it a particularly stirring or original example of said genres.

Count 3: It’s hard to say this about a filmmaker with an honorable track record, but Ridley Scott has become a shadow of himself. American Gangster is a painfully flabby movie. Scott repeatedly manages to do in four or five shots what should take one or two. Meanwhile, missing is the unique visual splendor that usually is Scott’s saving grace. In fact, when one such moment finally comes – the sound of a suicide hidden in the hum of a vacuum cleaner – it makes you wonder where the rest of it was.

Count 4: Denzel Washington delivers a terrifically efficient performance as Frank Lucas, a small player who strikes it rich by importing pure heroin to New York in the late 60s and early 70s. The problem is that the performance must be efficient. The twin-story structure robs him of the time needed to complete the character. As a result, Frank Lucas might have the same moral torpitude as a Michael Corleone, on whom he’s clearly based, but we don’t have the same deep understanding of what makes him tick.

Count 5: The production design and period detail are good, if occasionally overdone. But it always feels like a dressed-up set. I never really felt like I was looking at 1971, no matter how many songs from the era they might play. I prefer the period consciousness for the same era in either Zodiac or Talk to Me.

I know this film will compete for Best Picture honors. Now I know which film I plan to root against.

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