Friday, January 11, 2008

TBG Reviews American Gangster

I wanted to love this movie. I really, really did. In the immediate aftermath of its early November release, there was some Oscar™ buzz accompanying the film and the performances of stars Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. But, after two hours, I was a lot less impressed with…well, everything.

Crowe and Washington are solid – Crowe, especially so – but, neither performance rises above the loftiest work on their résumés. The story of Harlem gangster Frank Lucas, his rise and fall and the morally ambiguous cop who brings him down held my attention, but the story moves along in fits and starts with odd, occasional subplots (child custody hearings, a tryout with the Yankees?) that drag the proceedings into a soap operatic slog.

Director Ridley Scott's 1970's New York teeters between '60s sheen and '80s apocalypse (thanks, Reagan!), which makes for a damn fine backdrop, but I found my eye being drawn more towards the absurd (Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s scrunchy, furrowed "mad face" and rapper T.I.'s not-at-all-convincing spin as an unsigned pitching prospect – he's 110 lbs. and throws/catches like a girl). These were minor characters in the grand scheme, yet I can't shake their imagery from my impression of the movie. Pretty sure that ain't my fault, Ridley.

Still, everything finally hits its stride in the third act as the walls close in on Washington's Lucas – highlighted by an especially uncomfortable scene involving a search warrant and Vietnam War corpses. Then, just as the guillotine is about to drop, Lucas throws up his hands and joins the dark side…well, to him, anyway. This decision did lead to the unintentionally hilarious final scene, as Lucas is released from prison in 1991 with Public Enemy's "Can't Truss It" blaring in the background.

Lucas looks around, sizing up a world where New Jack City is a hit movie and Malcolm X has become a ubiquitous hat logo and it wouldn't have surprised me to see him turn around, pound on the walls and beg to be let back in.

Although, all bets are off if, in the DVD's deleted scenes, we see Washington asking his new boss at the supermarket for a bathroom break.

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