Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian set a stage for Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe to play, respectively, a drug lord and a cop on his trail in American Gangster. What's not to like?, you may ask. Unfortunately, you might find it's the movie they made. While the "based on a true story" film doesn't especially do much wrong (other than taking extreme liberties with the true story), it doesn't do much right, either. The result is a star-driven, big-budget prestige picture that's inordinately dull.
American Gangster begins with a witty scene and ends with a punchy series of title cards, but the long middle of this 158-minute movie fails to engage as it plods through procedure and fails to illuminate character. In 1968 Harlem, drug kingpin "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III) philosophizes to his driver/collector Frank Lucas (Washington) about the toll of discount appliance stores and fast food. "This is what's wrong with America. It's gotten so big, you just can't find your way," Johnson opines. "Where's the pride of ownership? Where's the personal service?"
Shortly, Bumpy's out of the picture, providing Lucas with an opportunity for advancement. Lucas seizes on Bumpy's cranky lecture about how modern businesses cut out the middleman: figuring he can do the same, Lucas flies to the Golden Triangle to negotiate a heroin pipeline between Vietnam and America. Greasing the right palms, Lucas gets his drugs a military escort in planes returning from the war zone.
Meanwhile, Jersey flatfoot Richie Roberts (Crowe), depicted as one of the last honest cops in a time of widespread police corruption, gets picked to lead the Essex County Narcotics Squad. While troubleshooting custody in an acrimonious divorce, Roberts sets his sights on suppliers and distributors, which means he's on a trajectory for top-dog Lucas. It's halfway through the picture before Roberts lays eyes on Lucas, on the occasion of the 1971 Frazier-Ali fight. Breaking his own rule against "noisy," attention-drawing attire so as not to offend his Puerto Rican beauty-queen wife Eva (Lymari Nadal), Lucas seals his fate by wearing a $50,000 chinchilla coat-and-hat combo.
Inflated talk of American Gangster as a modern masterpiece—or even an Oscar-worthy picture—ignores the fact that there's not a single memorable setpiece in the film. Scott's no Sidney Lumet (who tackled similar subject matter in Prince of the City, among others), and the period piece feels more like an expensive day of "dress up" (cue "Across 110th Street"!) than a gritty, street-level drama. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Armand Assante, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Joe Morton inhabit the margins as family, friends, and mobsters in Lucas' orbit. Oscar-nominated Ruby Dee (as Lucas' mother) and Josh Brolin (as a Crooked Cop) are allowed to be more colorful, but in roles that afford no more depth.
Speaking of colors, neither Washington nor Crowe show any new ones, though sparks do finally fly when the actors share a scene at picture's end. The best that can be said of Steven Zaillian's ho-hum script (based on a now-controversial New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson) is that it acknowledges the entrepreneurship of the criminal class and draws a comparison between white-collar and street-level robber barons. It's hardly a new insight, but at least it's an idea in a movie mostly bereft of them (there's also the hazy notion of a mama's boy Lucas uplifting his family—and, perhaps, his race—though his success).
Of course, to inflate the illiterate Lucas' ingenuity and "Superfly" rep is to glorify a criminal. That's an idea about which Universal has no qualms since De Palma's Scarface started living large and lucrative as the pet film of "gangsta" rappers. Yes, Lucas discovers the wages of sin in the film's third act: the drain of payoffs, practical imprisonment in his own home and, eventually, actual imprisonment. Scott also attempts a gut punch by ending an otherwise happy-go-lucky Thanksgiving montage with dead junkies in a squalid apartment, but when the bell tolls, it rings hollow. In the end, the war profiteer, drug dealer, and murderer gets his honorable discharge from prison, just in time to start packaging his story of African-American "progress" for hungry movie producers.
Universal rolls out the red carpet for American Gangster on home video, with a "2-Disc Unrated Extended Edition," "3-Disc Collector's Edition," and four-disc "Gangsters: The Ultimate Film Collection" that also includes special editions of Scarface, Casino, and Carlito's Way. Perhaps due to the film's length, the image suffers somewhat on DVD: the lackluster transfer can become shifty, especially in dark scenes; the vibrant 5.1 soundtrack demands no such complaints.
Disc One includes two versions of the film: the 158-minute theatrical cut and a 176-minute unrated "extended" cut that presumably represents an earlier assembly of the film before Ridley Scott's final cut (nowhere in the set is the extended cut contextualized). The 18 new minutes alternately are redundunt or add texture, but the mixed sprinkling includes a surprise ending: another scene shared by Washington and Crowe. It's a thuddingly obvious scene that would have fit better into Disc Two's small "Deleted Scenes" package than as the big finish to the extended cut.
The theatrical cut gets a commentary by Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian, recorded separately. Scott covers a lot of ground about the film, its technical demands, the true story, and the cast, while sometimes spinning off on entertaingly eccentric tangents, while Zaillian explains his process of writing a film apiece for each lead and then merging the two. Both commentators put an emphasis on pointing out the truthfulness (as opposed to "truthiness") of the film, a theme that carries over onto Disc Two.
Disc Two houses a truly impressive suite of extras, starting with the feature-length documentary "Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster" (1:18:22). Like most DVD-age making-of docs, this one has discrete sections with a "Play All" feature: "Tru Blu: The Real Story," "Killer Threads: Costumes," "Crime War: Production," "Into the Arena: Ali vs. Frazier," and "Rhythm of the Street: Sound, Music, and Editing." Participants include Scott, Frank Lucas, Richie Roberts, Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, producer Brian Grazer, executive producers Nicholas Pileggi and Branko Lustig, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Roger Guenveur Smith, Jerrod Page (Ali), Bobby Jones (Frazier), costume designer Janty Yates, production designer Arthur Max, VFX supervisor Wesley Sewell, music supervisor Kathy Nelson, music producer Hank Shacklee, singer Anthony Hamilton, editor Pietro Scalia, composer Marc Streitenfeld, extras casting director Billy Dowd, and Inflatable Crowd Co. owner Joe Biggins.
Two extra deleted scenes are here: the laughable "Alternate Opening" (1:02) and wisely discarded "Frank and Eva's Wedding" (2:44). The set's best features are the "CASE FILES," totalling 25 minutes. Again with a "Play All" feature, they are a fascinating "Script Meeting" with Scott, Roberts, Zaillian, and Lustig; "Heroin Show & Tell," an amusing dance of egos between Scott and two police technical advisers; and "Setting Up the Takedown," a more traditional B-roll look at the shooting of the film's action climax. Fans of the film cannot help but be pleased at Universal's deluxe treatment, also available in an HD DVD version.
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