Monday, November 05, 2007

Two Sides of the "American" Dream


directed by Ridley Scott
starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe
smaller parts for Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, Armand Assante, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Carla Gugino, John Ortiz, RZA, Idris Elba, others

If you haven’t seen “American Gangster” yet, my first advice to you is not to read any reviews of the film until after you have. Trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a favor.

I say this even though I’m far from being rabidly anti-spoiler. To me, the only true spoilers are those that give away a plot twist or a solution to a mystery; otherwise, I personally seek out as much advance information as possible on any film that piques my interest. And I firmly believe that reading a broad range of reviews can be invaluable in shaping one’s expectations without affecting one’s personal enjoyment of a movie.

Unfortunately, sometimes there’s a peculiar convergence among the critics such that in addition to making similar general comments about a film, which is tolerable, they all pinpoint and describe the same damn scenes, which is much less so. (Example: “Sideways,” for which every single review I read not only went gaga for Miles’ heartfelt speech on the pinot noir grape but offered almost exactly the same exegesis of its subtext.) Big deal, you might say with a shrug: most people don’t read half a dozen reviews prior to seeing a movie. Fair enough. But even in just one review, this kind of detailing is still joy-sapping, not to mention intensely annoying, when the scenes in question either serve as crucial turns in the plot or are intended to deliver a sharp jolt. So it is with "American Gangster," and for this reason I will refrain from discussing any individual scenes in this movie.

“American Gangster” chronicles the career of 1970’s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas and the persistent efforts of a New Jersey cop, Richie Roberts, to track and pin him with all the force of the law. Add in Hollywood heavyweights Ridley Scott as director and Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as Frank and Richie, respectively, and you’ve got one of the most hotly anticipated prestige pictures of the year.

Does it deliver on expectations? More or less. It doesn’t disappoint, but it also fails to dazzle, or to introduce anything we haven’t seen before in countless post-“Godfather” gangster and cop movies, from “Serpico” and “The French Connection” to “Scarface” and Michael Mann’s “Heat.” There’s no doubt Frank Lucas’ story is a fascinating one, rife with all the tensions raised by a poor black man from the Deep South coming to New York and besting the Mafia at their own game. Yet as scripted by Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “Gangs of New York,” and the stinker no one saw, “All the King’s Men,” which he also directed), the film flags these social and racial undercurrents without really exploring either their roots or their broader impact.

It also doesn’t quite succeed in teasing out who Frank Lucas was, despite the high star wattage Denzel brings to one of his rare bad-guy roles. Denzel plays Frank as a cool customer, a well-spoken man in well-tailored suits, with the streamlined look of a corporate honcho (which, of course, was essentially what he was) and the studiously polite manners of a gentleman—except, on occasion, when he draws from a deep inner well of sadism or suppressed rage. Even or perhaps especially in those moments, he remains fundamentally opaque. It may be that this was a deliberate choice. But it places the viewer at a remove from the character, despite the shocking impact of certain scenes (or at least, they should have been shocking but weren’t, thanks to the critics!) that reveal the enormity of what he was capable of doing, without hesitation or compunction, in the course of conducting his business. The distance isn’t bridged by the contrasting glimpses of Lucas as a generous family man, which seem intended to suggest that he was building off the Mafia model of the family-run empire, but also that he may have been motivated by genuine love and familial loyalty. That may be, yet you don’t really get that vibe from Denzel, even in his most intimate moments. His interactions with his wife (Lymari Nadal), even in the courtship phase, are especially chilly and unrevealing.

Crowe’s Richie is on the surface easier to read and understand, even if, in a rather obvious inversion of Frank’s double life, he poses the enigma of the straight-arrow cop who can’t keep to anything resembling a straight path in his personal life. His marriage is disintegrating, because he’s wedded to his job rather than to his marriage vows, which he’s evidently broken numerous times. Every word addressed to him by his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is laced with resentment; he barely sees his young son and is in danger of losing all custody rights; and his living quarters and personal grooming are a perpetual disaster. All he has to cling to is his inflexible professional integrity, which makes him one of the most disliked members of his own department. Crowe convincingly embodies the mixture of tenacity and haplessness that mark this ragged crusader, as much through his dogged pursuit of a law degree on the side as through his quest to figure out who’s behind the recent influx of premium heroin that’s hit the streets. But here again, the movie does little probing into why Richie wants to be a lawyer (is it only for the elevated social status? Or for something else?) or how that desire comports with his fierce dedication to his day-job. The movie seems interested primarily in juxtaposing his trajectory with Frank’s, up to and just a little beyond their intersection. The contrast is striking enough, but not particularly illuminating of either character.

That “American Gangster” gives us something less than a full connection to these two complicated characters might be less of an issue if the film weren’t so obviously focused on them at the expense of the many supporting players. We see, among others, Josh Brolin as a slick, crooked New York cop who harasses both Frank and Richie, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Frank’s younger brother and Number Two man, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Nicky Barnes, Frank’s flashier rival, yet none of them is on screen long enough to register much more than a passing presence. John Ortiz fares better in an equally brief role as Richie’s ill-fated partner. However, the one person who really takes our eyes off of the Denzel-Russell show is the wonderful Ruby Dee, who plays Frank’s mother. Initially she comes across as a simple, sweet old lady who’s just happy to have a son who’s so good to her, only to reveal later that just because she hasn’t been asking Frank any questions doesn’t mean she hasn’t figured out some answers he hasn’t.

The other major player in “American Gangster,” of course, is Ridley Scott, and like his two stars, he meets expectations without exceeding them. He meticulously evokes the New York underbelly of yesteryear, against the turbulent political backdrop of the Vietnam War, interspersed with somewhat more generic scenes set in southeast Asia, the originating source of the hash that Frank markets so effectively. Apart from glimpses of the drug magnates’ obscene wealth, the movie’s narrative and visual turf is a landscape of poverty, grime, and corruption so deep-rooted that only someone like Richie would undertake the Sisyphean task of eradicating it. But because it’s Ridley Scott directing, there’s something perversely beautiful about the squalor depicted, notwithstanding the movie’s fixation with smack-laden needles penetrating scarred flesh.

In other respects, Scott generally refrains from glamorizing the allure of being at the top of a criminal chain: the other drug lords who openly flaunt their wealth look like tacky showmen next to Frank. However, Frank’s self-restraint ultimately leaves us with no understanding of the draw for him of the life he chose. It doesn’t feel like a compulsion, like it does with Richie; it feels like a considered decision. “American Gangster” could have been a greater film if it had tried to offer more insight into the motivating thoughts and emotions behind that decision. As it is, it’s merely watchable: it engages, but it doesn’t transport.



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