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American Gangster (2007)

17 Sep

Ridley Scott has turned his hand to a multitude of genres: Sci-Fi, Sword and Scandal Epic, Jingoistic War Film, Factually Dubious Historical Action Spectacular, Feministic Road Movie and whatever ‘Legend’ was supposed to be. Scott is a director with an unerring gift for taking the lacklustre and the hackneyed and swathing it in a carapace of lush, pulchritudinous visuals and dense, arresting backdrops.

‘American Gangster’ is his first foray into the world of the crime drama since the ludicrous ‘80s gloss-fest ‘Black Rain’. Does ‘American Gangster’ rectify this glaring rebuttal to his reputation as the ultimate genre director? In a manner, it does, ‘American Gangster’ is a perfectly proficient piece of film-making, but it isn’t without its faults.

‘American Gangster’ charts the rise of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), from local flunky in 1970s Harlem to international druglord and organized crime kingpin. Following the death of his mentor, ‘Bumpy’ Johnson (Clarence Williams III) Lucas vies for control of Harlem with a plethora of rivals – most notably Idris Elba as the cocksure Tango. Lucas begins smuggling a cheap and potent new strain of heroin out of Vietnam, bringing his family from the Carolina sticks to back him up. Parallel to this is the turning point in the life and career of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) an ambitious detective and aspiring lawyer swimming in a cesspit of corruption. When he discovers a million dollars in cash in the trunk of a car, he is vilified for deciding to turn it in. After being outcast by his crooked brethren in the force and losing his partner to an overdose, Roberts is asked to head up his own unit, investigating the source of this new drug, named Blue Magic. The higher Lucas rises, the more he contravenes his own rule to remain inconspicuous, which brings him to the attention of the Special Narcotics Bureau, as well as some less upstanding sections of law enforcement.

Washington exudes his customary poise and charisma, solidifying his reputation as the most dependable leading man in Hollywood; it seems that there is no film he cannot elevate by his mere presence. Crowe turns in his best performance since ‘The Insider’, imbued with a focus and pathos missing from his more grandstanding, Oscar-coveting roles. Also of note are the performances of Josh Brolin as the unctuous Trupo – which bears favourable comparison to Nick Nolte’s hard-bitten turn in ‘Q&A’ – Chitewel Ejiofor as Frank’s guileless brother, Huey, Ruby Dee as the long-suffering Mama Lucas and fully paid-up member of the Wu Tang Clan, RZA, as Moses Jones.

But not even this profusion of talent can compensate for the feeling that ‘American Gangster’ has nothing at its centre. He may be a great technician, but Scott’s films are not renowned for their emotional depth. A Scorsese or a Lumet may have been able to endow the film with some heart, to unearth some truths in the midst of the chaos and carnage. Indeed, ‘American Gangster’ is at its best when it explores the socio-political factors behind the characters’ actions.

Lucas pursues an idiosyncratic variant of the American Dream; the determination, hard work and entrepreneurialism at the heart of its mythology. He is a portent of the coming decade, of corporate hegemony; Reaganomics incarnate. Roberts, on the other hand, is the honest man whose good intentions go unrewarded, beset at every turn by entreaties to fall in line and look the other way. Sadly, this is not explored in any great detail, taking a backseat to the usual cat-and-mouse template.

‘American Gangster’ draws on all manner of influences, from blaxploitation classics like ‘Superfly’ and ‘Black Caesar’ to New Hollywood gems like ‘Serpico’ and ‘The French Connection’. The problem is that, by invoking these films, it simply serves to remind us how great they are and how ‘American Gangster’ lacks the vivid grittiness, urgency and brutality of its progenitors, feeling more like a compilation of classic clips than a coherent whole.

Like anything Ridley Scott is involved in, it looks amazing, but its resplendence is part of its weakness, with the trademark ‘Scott sheen’ having a distancing effect, wrapping the characters in a layer of honey. Another shortcoming is Steve Zaillian’s screenplay, which does little to rectify some of the clichés that have bedevilled the genre: the violent, ruthless ganglord who is a devoted family man at heart, the obsessed cop whose personal life is falling apart around him, etc. While it at least resists the temptation to glorify the ugly realities of Lucas’s milieu or present a black-and-white morality, it treads a familiar path and it’s disheartening to see so many archetypes being perpetuated yet again.

A little more ‘artistic license’ could have benefited the denouement; the scenes between Washington and Crowe fall below expectation after so much build up. Strict verisimilitude is not always the preferred course. The end result is a sprawling endeavor with epic pretensions and a misplaced sense of importance for what is essentially a stylized, big budget B movie.

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