Friday, November 09, 2007

Just Business: "American Gangster"

American Gangster (2007, Dir. Ridley Scott)

Frank Lucas: The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hardwork... family... never forgetting where we came from.

As an original visual stylist, Ridley Scott can be provocative when he wants to be: look no further than Alien and Blade Runner (or even Black Rain) for proof. And yet there's another side to him, the sucker for history, in which the gleaming surfaces of the Caesar-era Roman Colisseum (Gladiator) or the broadside of the Santa Maria (1492: Conquest of Paradise) are meant to be reproduced with photographic fidelity. Not nearly as obsessive with story and character as he is with the teeming worlds he creates, he's often been at the mercy of his screenwriters. When they provide him with pulp or at least passable shlock, he skates by; when handed something clunky, the results can be overblown (G.I. Jane, Hannibal).

American Gangster is a change of pace for Scott -- while it allows him to indulge the history buff inside him by recreating 70s New York in all its ratty glory, it is primarily a character study of two men: Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the local hood who made himself the most powerful criminal in the five boroughs, and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the dogged detective who eventually brought him in. Loosely based on a fasincating Mark Jacobson piece in New York Magazine titled "The Return of Superfly," we witness Lucas' rise as a funhouse version of the American dream: using guile, entrepreneurial smarts (to get a leg up in the heroin business he bypasses the middleman and gets his product straight from the jungles of southeast Asia), canny branding (naming his product "Blue Magic" to further separate himself from competitors) and responsible practices (instead of flaunting his wealth, he opts for a conservative nouveau riche lifestyle) to get ahead. Of course it helps that he's perfectly ready to blow a rival's brains out in broad daylight on the streets of Harlem should the need arise.

Richie Roberts, on the other hand, is seemingly the one good cop in a crooked town. When he does the honest thing and turns in $1 million in unmarked bills after a drug bust, he's immediately pegged as an outsider in his own department, for how can you entrust someone with your dirty secrets when he won't even take a little somethin'-somethin' for himself? Inept in his home life, separated from his wife (Carla Guigino in a thankless, ornamental role) and son, he's given a chance at redemption when he signs up for a special task force based in Jersey that's primed to take down drug traffikers. And thus these two forces -- the sober, careful kingpin and the hangdog cop -- are destined to collide with each other, much like Al Pacino's lawman and Robert DeNiro's thief in Heat. As in the latter film, the two principals only share the screen for a pivotal few minutes, and yet forge a connection that they are unable to have in their own corrupt worlds.

Scott has invested in character dramas before, like Thelma and Louise, in which the glossy visuals threatened to overwhelm the story. Here, his bustling, hustling visual style is a good match with a flamboyant tale that stretches from Manhattan to Vietnam. On a technical level, the film is flawless, and we have no doubt that the beige interiors of Harlem diners and the subterranean heroin production plants staffed by nude women are genuine reproductions of the era. Save one overdone action scene in which a drug bust becomes a shootout that spans an entire apartment building, Scott is more interested in the accretion of plot this time around. The narrative gallops forward at a fast clip, finding enough time to introduce a panoply of minor characters, including a suitably slimy Josh Brolin as a corrupt cop who gets on Lucas and Roberts' bad side; a blustering Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Lucas' stylin' rival Nicky Barnes; and most memorably, Ruby Dee as Lucas' mama from North Carolina, as down-home sweet as you can be and wilfully oblivious of her son's wrongdoings. Indeed, the best passages in the movie involve Lucas and his family brood, many of whom become lieutenants in his business. When Lucas sits down with a young nephew who wants to join the family "business" rather than make use of his college scholarship, it's an amusing perversion of the heart-to-heart "what are you going to do with your life" chat endemic to families everywhere.

American Gangster wants to be a lot of things -- it wants to recapture the smoldering decency and period details of Sidney Lumet's Serpico, in which Pacino played a whistleblower cop, as well as the family tragedy of The Godfather. It was originally intended to be directed by Antoine Fuqua (with Benecio del Toro in Crowe's role) -- one can imagine that under Fuqua's hand, it would have had more of the juice of Training Day, in which Washington gave a volcanic performance as bad cop-gone-ambivalent. Frankly, that live-wire element is missing in this film. Denzel has reached the point in his career where he couldn't be un-charming and inelegant if he tried, but as he's matured, the sense of danger that seeped into his performances has disappeared. As Lucas he is calm, measured, affable, a Marlon Brando sneer sometimes gracing his lip, and we wait in vain for anything that suggests threat and menace lie beneath that well-tailored exterior. Crowe comes off better as he dials down his innate intensity for his role: his Roberts may burn with the fires of justice, but he keeps it under wraps, using his shambling demeanor as a defense and weapon.

For all its attention to production design and realism, American Gangster is very much a Hollywood product, and Scott freely indulges in all the tropes of the standard detective/gangster epic -- for instance, it comes as no surprise to find out that the real-life Roberts never had a troubled home life with his son, because, well, he never had a son. And any universe that imagines Denzel Washington as a dapper criminal is surely a far cry from the true Frank Lucas, who by all reports was a smart, vicious type who was somehow more naive and hick-ish than the film makes him out to be. Outstanding in its breadth and lacking in depth, the film's final confrontation between Roberts and Lucas is an encapsulation of its strengths and flaws. It's a scene laced in irony, as Lucas gives Roberts the information he needs to finger the multitudes of New York cops who are on the take, the gangster and cop united in a common goal, the gangster wanting to wipe out the competition and the cop wanting to clean house. (In a further irony, the real-life Lucas and Roberts have since become friends.) Who wouldn't be on board for a face-off like that? And yet Washington and Crowe, two actors known to sizzle when they want to, decide to play it close to the vest, and the film, much like Scott's direction, settles with tastefulness over dynamism.


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