Monday, November 05, 2007

American Gangster (2007)

A lot of stuff happens in this movie, from drug busts to bribery to courtroom eruptions to Chinchilla coats being tossed on fires, but not very much of it really seems to be thematically related to some larger point that the movie is trying to make. It's a movie with a lot of sound and fury, but ultimately, signifying not much of anything.

The great American crime movies, The Godfather I and II, Scarface, and so on burn with the passions of their lead characters, take their power from their ambitions and uncertainties. I couldn't really tell you what makes Frank Lucas, Denzel Washington's character, tick. He gets a couple of minor subplots - buying a house for his mother, coping with the established Italian mobs - but sorry to say, it's a pretty shallow depiction of an interesting person. Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts has a little more to do, but again, very little of his screentime seems pointed towards building some larger conception of what crime and crime-fighting in America are about. So anyway, I was moderately entertained by all the flash and ridiculous outfits, and Washington has at least one terrific outburst involving a blood-stained carpet, but I was left generally unsatisfied.

The supporting cast is pretty strong, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, and Josh Brolin. On the other hand, Lymari Nadal as Lucas's Puerto Rican wife is pretty bad and I could barely make out anything said by her, Armand Assante, or the RZA.

11 comments:

cjKennedy said...

Deep down I have this sneaking suspicion this movie isn't going to live up to all the hype for me. We'll see. I probably won't have a chance to check it out until next week.

I hope you're wrong, but I won't be shocked if you're right on

Jeff McMahon said...

The hype is part of the problem, but there's also the movie's own intended monumentality ("American ____") which it in no way manages to live up to.

Steven Santos said...

I just saw this movie yesterday and agree with your review. A lot of it just seemed overly familiar in terms of gangster stories and I felt Washington's character was written and performed without any inner spark.

It wasn't helped that precious time was taken from Washington's character just to show that Russell Crowe's character was a bad dad.

I found this to be a Ridley Scott film almost devoid of his signature directorial style, which was a good change of pace for him. I just wished there had been a more interesting story to tell.

John M said...

Um, McMahon, you're starting to sound like a theme nazi.

For you it seems that almost everything is either too thuddingly clear, or it doesn't adhere closely enough to themes set out. You don't like it when you don't know how you feel about Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma, and you don't like that you don't know what makes Frank Lucas "tick." (I for one agree that overall American Gangster didn't know what exactly it was saying, but that's more a problem with the overall structure and hindrance of non-fiction. 3:10 to Yuma, I thought, painted a very finely nuanced set of lead characters, and is better than virtually everything new, especially studio product, I've seen this year.)

You're riding a fine line between a desire for clarity and a desire for spoonfeeding.

You must HATE all French films.

Keep in mind that, as great as The Godfather is, it had the major advantage of being fiction. It could map out a beautiful, balanced downfall, because it wasn't obligated to follow the rough edges of history. It's epic and poetic and lucid. Reality is almost always less satisfying, less conclusive, less neat, and less powerful. (Indeed, you could say that truth is stranger than ficiton. You heard it hear first, folks!) If American Gangster were fiction, God knows it wouldn't have had such a weird, bad ending. Richie Roberts is Frank Lucas's defense attorney now? Mario Puzo wouldn't have written that... That's not excusing Ridley Scott and Stephen Zaillian--they pretty much failed to articulate the film's moral point of view--but they seemed to feel obligated to include just about everything that happened from 1968-1975.

By the way, Scarface--I'm assuming you're talking about DePalma's Scarface--is a shitty, shitty movie. It's borderline impossible to sit through. If you wanna lump it with The Godfather, good luck with that. Hawks's Scarface, now that's iconic.

Furthermore, I had no difficulty understanding Armand Assante or the RZA or Lymari Nadal.

That is all.

Jeff McMahon said...

First of all, is that Magary?

Second, I take an exception to statements along the lines of "You must HATE _____". It feels like you're trying to pick a fight, not have a dialogue. And if you are John Magary, you know that this is obviously not the case.

So allow me to explain myself a little bit better: I don't think that the problem in 3:10 to Yuma was that "I don't know how to feel" about Russell Crowe's character, it's that I don't think the movie or James Mangold knows how they feel about him. He's inconsistent, as opposed to organic and complex. You can call it intriguing ambiguity, I call it mediocre filmmaking, in that particular case.

Next, based on what I'm hearing about American Gangster, it appears the movie is even more fictionalized than a lot of people realize. For example, Richie Roberts was never in a custody battle, it was merely written in for the sake of contrast with Frank Lucas and his family life, which means that it's even more of a story without a cogent point. The problem with the movie is more that they stuck to Hollywood formula than that they stuck to the 'facts of the case'.

And DePalma's Scarface is a great, messy, straight-from-the-id movie. Not as good as the first two Godfathers, but pretty damn great anyway. I can probably say more about it when DePalma's Redacted comes out.

'Nuff said.

John said...

It is I. But I don't use my full name, because it'll show up on Google, and then everyone can trace my thoughts, like a Dick novel. I still prize my privacy--why post to a blog then, you ask? Yeah, I know.

And if you do like French cinema, you could, ya know, write about it now and again. How much ink you spill on The Reaping, McMahon? Really? The Reaping? The Kingdom?

Here's a proposition: review a new movie, not genre, that's budgeted under 5 million. Maybe even one where people don't speak American.

(yes, now I'm just looking for a fight.)

I will say your passion for Scarface might get me to watch it again. It's tough though: the film's nauseating aesthetics offend me more than its endless emphatic violence.

Can we talk about the set-piece at the end of American Gangster, at least? In the projects? That was extremely good directing..definitely a case when I was glad I wasn't watching DePalma, or even Scorsese. You gotta give up ALL your soul to execute that kind of set piece.

I'd also like to spend a weekend picking out all the obvious formulaic narrative crutches in The Godfather.

And Taxi Driver.

And Ulysses.

Jeff McMahon said...

I never saw The Kingdom...until earlier today, speaking of reading one's thoughts. I would be happy to go and see and review 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but it ain't playing yet.

Re: Scarface, I wouldn't expect your old impressions to change much based on me, but then after all, I am a big DePalma fan.

Back to American Gangster, yeah, it was a well-executed action sequence but I can't say that it was thrilling because it didn't really add anything to the movie beyond an action beat.

Jeff McMahon said...

Or are you being sarcastic?

Jeff McMahon said...

Oh yeah, and happy birthday a week ago.

john Magary said...

No sarcasm. That sequence had me on the edge of my seat. (Which is a good thing, cuz I only paid for the edge!)

I thought the sequence--and several other large-scale sequences-- were extremely well done, and some of the harsher reviews seem only mildly impressed. It's "professional," yeah, but do these shit-talkers know how hard it is to achieve this level of specificity and coordination, on such a large scale?

And sorry, I thought you reviewed the Kingdom....maybe I'm thinking of some other Iraq movie?

Speaking of which, I order you to see Lions for Lambs immediately!

Jeff McMahon said...

You're thinking of In the Valley of Elah, which sucked.
Agreed, that sequence was very well-done, but for me it could only lift the movie from mediocre into high-mediocre. I got more enjoyment out of Denzel screaming about how you have to dab, not scrub, at a bloodstain on a fur rug.