Movie Review: American Gangster
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.