Everything about American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s latest piece of handsomely empty hack work, seems worn out. The marquee actors -- Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe -- can muster little more than sullen stares, while Scott relies on random slow-motion and glamorized violence in a failed attempt to jolt his cliché-ridden film to life.
Based on the true story of '70s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Washington), American Gangster charts his rise and inevitable fall, brought down by a womanizing Jersey detective named Richie Roberts (Crowe). It’s a story arc that was perfected in the silent period with Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), and Scott’s film shrivels in comparison. Where Sternberg’s expressionistic visuals eloquently documented the growing dementia of Underworld’s gang leader (culminating in the streamer filled party sequence), Gangster’s unmotivated tracking shots and nonstop music cues make it little more than a mildly diverting police procedural. It’s like a two-and-a-half hour (and very expensive) episode of Law & Order, excepting that TV show’s feel for New York City detail.
Although Gangster was shot on location, Scott pays so little attention to the city it could’ve been shot in a Vancouver back lot -- he’s too busy ripping off The Godfather (whose baptismal murder montage is transplanted to Thanksgiving Day) and Goodfellas (fetishized cocaine production) to take a look at the world in front of his camera. In order to remind the audience what decade it is, Scott plasters the film with televisions airing Vietnam footage, effectively comparing the U.S. pullout to Lucas's downfall. Inside of these heavily lit, choppily edited spaces, Washington and Crowe have little to work with: Frank Lucas is depicted as a gangster family man, while Roberts is the bachelor-pad cop (who goes to night school!). Lucas lives with his mother and beautiful wife, while Roberts is in the middle of a divorce -- and sleeping with his lawyer. This is what passes for complexity of character in Steven Zaillian’s long-gestated script.
The plot sets up these simple inversions, but they are not investigated with any insight: Scott’s cut from Lucas’s Thanksgiving turkey to Roberts’s potato chip sandwich is about as deep as it gets. It’s characterization as a cheap joke. The racial aspect of the story -- that Lucas is the first black gangster to control the whole city -- is given short shrift, functioning mainly to fire up a bigoted D.A. (Roger Bart) and making the film’s trailer look provocative. Any racial pretenses are abandoned for the lazily paced investigation run by Crowe and Wu Tang Clan’s RZA, who along with T.I. (playing Lucas's young cousin) gives the only charismatic performance in the film.
Perhaps everyone seems so tired due to the unusually long pre-production period. Washington was attached to the project as far back as March 2004 (with a Zaillian script), when Brian DePalma was attached to direct. He was soon replaced by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), who then dropped out due to a clash with the producer, Brian Grazer. Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) then took a stab, writing a new script and attempting to cast Don Cheadle. Grazer nixed that incarnation as well; Scott was hired instead, the Zaillian script was exhumed and polished, and Washington was lured back in.
And so American Gangster has the feel of a once-cherished idea that lost momentum with every script rewrite and director change. Characterization is non-existent (Josh Brolin's villainous cop is evil, one assumes, because of his moustache), and themes are over-emphasized to the point of absurdity. When Lucas is arrested in church to the strains of "Amazing Grace," the only response to such force-fed irony is disbelief at the filmmakers' laziness. American Gangster is a professional-looking piece of work with no personal investment or passion whatsoever: airless, stilted, and completely bored with itself.
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