Sunday, February 03, 2008


Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ted Levine
Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 157 min.
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Gangster, Crime, Drama

The film opens with a man tied to a chair surrounded by a group of hoodlums, one of them Frank Lucas, at that time the right hand man of Harlem Godfather ‘Bumpy Johnson’. They bathe the man in gasoline and as he screams set him ablaze. Lucas, played by Denzel Washington with a swagger so very typical of his performances, lights a cigarette and unloads a couple of rounds into him. Mercy killing, probably. And the title appears – American Gangster. With the same emphasis, that dreaded tag follows it - Based on a true story. That is the kind of start I find most disappointing, and most certainly unimaginative.
Frank Lucas was the kind of man who would have claimed – As long as I can remember I always wanted to rule a business empire. That was the kind of ambitious low-key profile he brought to the gangster way of life. No sir, the fur coat not for this guy. He was reportedly so professional in his ways Martin Scorsese would have been proud to tag him alongside Jimmy Conway, probably be his boss, only if they weren’t so averse to each other. He was the black man, in a predominantly Italian, white man driven mafia and narcotics business, and he rose up the chain to command the supply through his famed ‘Cadaver Connection’ that replaced the vacuum created by the drying up of the ‘French Connection’. Of course, much of it is based on Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article The Return of the Superfly (follow the link to the article), which itself is based almost entirely Lucas’ retelling of events. There’s quite a lot of debate, especially in CNN’s article here, but that is fodder for a different subject. What the opening sequence followed by the title does is reduce Lucas’ character to that of a common gangster, which he wasn’t. He was the American Gangster, by which I mean he was a businessman who happened to choose the business of narcotics.
American Gangster is the kind of film a teenager recently exposed to the world of European art-house cinema would label under the section – typical Hollywood big-budgeted bullshit. Though I wouldn’t agree with the blunt manner in which he puts it, I might understand what he actually means, and the wide range of criticisms these words of his encompass.
It might lead one to infer that it is so very tough to have a novel, revolutionizing take on the gangster genre. It is interesting because even the poster seems to mimic the iconic B&W image of Al Pacino in Scarface (click on the link to view the poster). The script, and the dialogues, and the sequences, and the snappy one-liners seem to derive and, at least in the initial hour, inspire from stock conventions of the genre. The gangster businessman’s career follows the same curve, filling the place of an old king, spreading his empire courtesy a brilliant move. In this case, it is Lucas going all the way to war-ravaged South-East Asia to gather top-quality heroin. We have the same old monologue on family values, we’ve the same old awe-stricken expressions of family members as they witness the tangible benefits of success, we’ve the same old shootouts driven from the envy of that success, we’ve the same old trophy wife in the wedlock which as time goes by sours. It might appear to be a great character, but Lucas as on paper is nothing more than a two-note gangster. Washington displays power, displays pride, but there’s nothing layered here to work with. It is a character as cheesy and pulpy as that of Tony Montana but unfortunately bears ambitions to sit besides Michael Corleone.
Then, there’re the stock corrupt bad cops led by Detective Trupo (Brolin) who never manage to be any more than a pack of hyenas, courtesy the script, despite stealing almost every sequence he is in. I have spent significant amount of time after viewing the film wondering if all these similarities are intentional, a parodic reference to the Hollywood gangster. On second thoughts, nah, I don’t think so. The film takes itself too seriously to be attempting anything like that. I wonder what sort of film Quentin Tarantino would have come up with.
But that is just the gangster part of it. There’s a totally different, parallel facet equally derived from stock. That would be the cop film, in this case Detective Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who is the most insanely honest man going around. He is the kind of cop who finds just a shy under million dollars in the trunk of a car and reports it. The kind of behavior which would earmark him as a threat to every corrupt policeman out there on the street. It is a great performance and if there is any soul in the film derived from truth, it is because of him. Strange it is that no one seems to be aware of Frank Serpico, since he was wreaking havoc through his integrity all over the New York police fraternity around the same time.
Ridley Scott might never find his name among the great filmmakers, at least in my book, despite making some of the most high-profile films of our times and not just Gladiator (that would have to be Blade Runner). When somebody keeps repeating the same strengths over a considerably long span of time, and keeps repeating the same weaknesses you wouldn’t have much of a choice either. He might make good engaging films, and mind you this quite an engaging film. It is straightforward direction, put together by sequences cutting back and forth between the parallel stories with little logic sprawling towards an explosive finish. But he might never make a great film, for that time in his career seems to have passed. I might be self indulging a bit, with my review digressing into a career study, but hey, I got to let it out somewhere. His early films were his best shot (Alien, Blade Runner) where they managed to rise high above the constrains of their respective genres. But now, he has started making dramas out of them, often pathetically reducing them to genre films.
Ritchie Roberts says in an interview –
“A lot of people are drawn to the idea that a black man was able to rise to that height over a white man — the Mafia — because of his brains. That’s fine. I’m Jewish, and part of me thinks that Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky were pretty cool guys because at a time when everybody thought that Jews were wimps, these guys rose to the heights of the Mafia. Part of me does feel that. But the other part of me recognizes that this is ridiculous; these guys are killers, not to be admired. It’s the same thing with Frank. In truth, Frank Lucas has probably destroyed more black lives than the K.K.K. could ever dream of.”
Scriptwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) echoes that feeling and has said that the above viewpoint influenced his Lucas a lot. He says - “When you meet Frank, he’s very charismatic, very personable. But you can never forget who he is and what he’s done.” That is very true, but what doesn’t true to me is the manner in which shots of drug addicts have been inserted, almost betraying a last minute decision at the editing factory. A hollow afterthought. The film naturally intends to side along with Denzel, but also harbors ambitions of portraying him as an evil person, the latter grossly unconvincing. This was the time when more than one evil force was at work in destroying the American nation. You go by that, Frank Lucas is an evil man, a terrorist, an enemy within aided by another, and flourishing.
But that is not all that it betrays. And had it not been the final hour where almost every force in the film somehow manage to gather together and spiral it towards that gem of a climax, the film would have been brought down in its entirety. Lucas and Roberts sit across a table, working off each other like the way Vincent and Neil did it in Heat. Listen to those dialogues rather carefully. Those lines, and the manner in which they’re delivered represent what the film was supposed to be and intended to be in the first place. It was as much about crime and the mafia as Million Dollar Baby was about boxing. It is about business, it is about economy, it is about the capitalist way, it is about the American way, and there’re no silly emotions involved. Everything is business, nothing is personal. No one is above the system, and that isn’t a bad thing at all. It is all progress. Virtuosity over a decade ago had Washington as the good guy and Crowe as the bad guy. The roles are reversed, and Crowe has become one of the great actors. That is progress. His Roberts might appear to be an honest to death cop. I don’t think he could be generalized that simple. Here is a guy who grew up in Harlem and went to High School with very same guys who later became hoodlums. He has great integrity, and he would serve anybody well. But what about his morality. He went on to represent Lucas as a defense attorney, and now they’re quite good friends. There’re no good guys and bad guys in this world. There’re just guys, and then, well, there’s money.


Shantanu Dhankar said...

Interesting! there's a lot in your review that i could not understand in the movie. As far as the rating goes i would give a four star to the movie. The performaces of both the stars are brilliant, but there's some contradiction that I find towards the ending ... Ritchie is an honest cop, and later an attorney, then why does he has to go and defent Lucas?, Is it because of the money?If, yes, I think it's a stark contrast to the character (Although it endorses the AMERICAN way of 'business' and not 'personal').

Anyways, as usual, a brilliant review!

patrick said...

American Gangster reminded me yet again what a versatile actor Russel Crowe is… plus pretty much anything directed by Ridley Scott is gonna be good.