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Movie Review: American Gangster

November 4, 2007

There was an Italian author in the 60s and 70s, by the name of Italo Calvino. He was a novelist and a short story writer, and though he’s obscure to most modern readers (especially since the idea of being a “modern reader” is itself alarmingly obscure), he’s notable for defining his work to be indefinable. If you pick up a Tom Clancy novel, you know what you’re getting. Stephen King, you know. But if you lived in those days and picked up the latest Calvino, you had no idea what you were in for. He made it his goal that everything he did should be completely different from anything he had done before. Perhaps it’s this lack of marketability that makes him obscure, but it’s also, to me, what makes him fascinating.

In the same way, I think Ridley Scott has done that with his own career. All the movies he does are different from the others. Who would believe, on a surface level, that the guy who did Black Hawk Down is the guy who did Thelma and Louise?

As such, Ridley Scott has a strange fame, to me. If I see a movie preview, and it’s directed by Ridley Scott, I often decide I’m going to see the film. And it’s kind of strange, because I’m really not a huge fan of his work. Gladiator was okay, and Alien is great, but Legend was more than a little shaky, and Blade Runner is downright boring.

That’s right, I said it.

He’s a solid filmmaker, he generally hits all the right notes (with the repeated exception of Blade Runner) and his filmmaking is impeccable, but I don’t know if he has a specific style. And maybe that’s what interests me. Maybe, like Calvino, I’m fascinated by the notion of always re-inventing oneself as a filmmaker.

I’ve said for a while now that, if I ever make it big, I don’t want to be “the guy who makes action movies” or “the guy who makes sci-fi movies” or “the guy who makes horror movies.” I’d love to be all of those things, and more importantly, I’d rather be “the guy who makes good movies.” I don’t know if I feel that way about Ridley Scott, but he’s certainly not letting himself get put in a box.

His latest film, American Gangster, is another decent-but-not-great film. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star in the based-on-truth story of a Harlem drug trafficker (Washington), and the narcotics officer who eventually brings him down (Crowe). Make no mistake, though, the story is REALLY about Denzel’s rise to power and fall from grace, about a nobody becoming a somebody.

It suffers from some of the same problems as other biopics — kind of meanders, no real “conclusion”, although it has a better one than most — and I think it also suffers from Denzel’s performance a bit. The man is an Oscar winner, but I think that’s making him lazy. He’s becoming the guy you get because you want that performance. You don’t hire Denzel because you think he can play the character, you hire Denzel because you want the character to be Denzel.

Nowhere is this more apparent, to me, than when Denzel gets “angry”. It’s always the same. He gets kind of pouty, he pushes his chin down into his neck and twitches, looking like a petulant child. Then he randomly lashes out, throwing his arms around, shouting, and typically repeating himself several times. I guess this is intended to make him sound “genuine”, the way “real people talk”. To me it just sounds like Denzel isn’t as interested in acting as he is in being Denzel, repeating that Oscar-winning performance even when it’s inappropriate to the character. And that’s a shame.

Russell Crowe does alright, with what he has to do. His character has a divorce/child custody subplot that goes absolutely nowhere and adds nothing to the story, aside from his “revelation” that he isn’t a good father — which doesn’t affect the rest of the story at all, and merely contributes to the already somewhat bloated running time.

Now, it’s definitely not as poorly paced as Jesse James; I didn’t feel like looking at my watch every 5 minutes wondering when it would be over. It kept my attention almost all the way through. But it COULD have been shorter without mucking anything up, and in my mind that means it SHOULD have been shorter.

As I said above, Ridley Scott is a solid filmmaker and you could do worse, especially as a filmmaker, than to study how he does things. They all seem very textbook now, but I think (and I’ll need to watch a lot of earlier stuff to verify, but I’m pretty sure) that’s because the “textbooks” relied heavily on him in the first place. But is American Gangster necessary to see on the big screen? I don’t really think so.

Two other things: this is a movie about heroin. If you’re needle squeamish (as I am), you should know that going in (which I didn’t).

Second, a friend and potential future collaborator of mine, Bari Willerford, plays Joe Lewis, and gets a pleasantly surprising amount of face-time, though no actual speaking occasions. Still, pretty cool.

From → filmmaking, reviews

  1. Rin permalink

    Blade Runner, boring? You CAD!!

    lol, seriously thou.

    I remember taking with Edward James Olmos awhile ago and he had nothing but respect and a bit of awe at what Ridley Scott was trying to do with the film. At the time it was so different from what was being made, a fact which really our generation had no idea because we were nowhere near being able to appreciate films at the time. Now we can understand that, and see that the film remains different from what is being made these days, which I think is one of the main reasons that Blade Runner has lasted so long.

    Trying out new things means inevitably failing at some things, and I like the fact that Ridley Scott has the balls to do it.

    Did you feel the same way about Denzel’s performance in Training Day?

  2. Master Darksol permalink

    Seriously, there was even a heroin montage at some point. I ended up curled up in a fetal position, much to the amusement of some large black man two rows back.

    But honestly, I think the divorce story arc was put there to set up Crowe’s relationship to the friend (now god-father to his kid) for when he discovers how high up Frank is on the list. At that point, the divorce itself became a kind of ‘loose end’ that needed tying up. You are right in that this could have been done in a different manner, certainly one that didn’t take so much screen time.

  3. Master Darksol permalink

    Rin: As Training Day is the movie in which Denzel won his Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, I think this is the performance that he was referring to when he said that Denzel was “repeating that Oscar-winning performance even when it’s inappropriate to the character.”

  4. Dorkman permalink

    Yes, as he points out, Training Day is where the performance originated, and it was great in Training Day. But in other movies, I expect an actor of his caliber to bring each new character to life, not to dress the same character up in different clothes.

    As far as Ridley Scott doing something new, I GET that. That’s kind of the point I made about his whole career. I understand it and respect that. But just because he made a well-shot movie doesn’t mean he made a GOOD movie.

    Blade Runner makes no sense. And this is coming from a guy who has actually read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So the movie probably makes more sense to me than it does to most of the people who watch it — and it STILL doesn’t make any goddamn sense.

    I’ve tried four times to understand it. I’ve watched it FOUR TIMES, all the way through, with an open mind, practically begging the movie to be good. I will probably see it a fifth time in its new “Final Cut” form, also hoping to understand why people love it so much.

    But at this point, I think Blade Runner being “different” isn’t the reason it’s lasted so long, so much as people being told they should love it, and not wanting to admit that they don’t.

  5. Rin permalink

    lol, like Hemingway?

  6. Patrick Roberts permalink

    American Gangster reminds me yet again what a versatile actor Russel Crowe is… plus Ridley Scott deftly leads us into loving the bad guy and disliking the good guy only to flip that around by the end of the movie… very clever.

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