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American Gangster

November 20, 2007

The cinematic version of the Great American Novel may just be the gangster film. Ever since Edward G and Jimmy Cagney ripped up the screen in the early Thirties, the biggest and best mob movies have managed to create a robust artistic reputation for themselves; of the 450 films currently residing in the US National Film Library’s list of works deemed to exhibit “cultural, historical, or aesthetic” significance, you can’t move for a Godfather, or a Goodfellas, a Scarface or a Public Enemy.

The gangster flick is a heavy hitter, and it manages to do this because at its best it transcends the simple movie form and transforms itself, like the best Westerns, into parable. As an example, it’s impossible, once seen, to forget the opening of The Godfather; out of the blackness, before the camera pulls out to show you Don Corleone’s inner sanctum, you hear those immortal first lines:


I believe in America. America has made my fortune.

Or, after that grisly first scene in Goodfellas, the image stop-frames, Henry Hill looks up and tells you:


As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

Well, off you go then, dear audience; you’re there (aren’t you? I am), applying all the symbolism and thematic gubbins you could possibly wish for to these grand, elegiac dramas. It’s bold brushstroke stuff, it’s Shakespearean, it’s immense. These films do it all for you; they’re so generous with what they provide, just look at the character arc of Michael in The Godfather, for instance, from war hero to soulless fratricide, staring out at the end of Part 2, across the grey cold stretches of Lake Tahoe, a man haunted by the Fates.

Ridley Scott’s American Gangster aspires to such lofty heights. This is over-confidence at best, and hubris at worst, but it is what it most assuredly does. Based on the New York magazine article The Return of Superfly, it takes as its subject the real-life heroin drug lord Frank Lucas (famously, the man who smuggled drugs from Vietnam into the US via the caskets of returning dead GIs) and his subsequent capture at the hands of squeaky clean Detective Richie Roberts.

Just the title, American Gangster, implies the epic, the poetic, the fabled, a re-imagining of the American Dream. Or something. We are reaching here, even before we get to the white on black iconography of the posters, the two A list stars, the A list director, etc. etc., for something truly great. American Gangster wants to be initiated into the pantheon. It thinks it’s a great a film.

So, is it?

Before I answer that, it’s worth noting that the movie went through many guises in development and was at one point touted – God save us – to be a Brian De Palma project called Tru Blue. Finally, Scott landed it (it had been offered to him first, but he was otherwise engaged) – after Training Day‘s Antoine Fuqua flirted with it also – and Scott dragged Russell Crowe on board. The bold AG title didn’t surface until around 2004, but it seems that once this had been suggested, it was a balls out focussed attempt to create something special.

And, for the most part this is a bloody good film indeed. It starts off confusingly, unfortunately; Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Roberts (Crowe) don’t meet until the end of the film, and in fact the cops aren’t fingering Lucas for any misdemeanours until well into the second half of the film. Up to that point we’re quite correctly more interested in fleshing out their respective characters and the reasons for their actions, but it seems a little meandering and not at all well-defined. Still, there’s some fascinating stuff in here (one brilliant scene where Lucas, against his better judgement wears a pimp-alicious chinchilla fur coat, goes to a boxing match, shakes Mohammed Ali’s hand and, for sticking his head above the parapet, gets noticed by the feds; Roberts, dragging his partner out of trouble, sees that he’s OK and then sticks by his principles and dumps him at the first whiff of corruption) and Crowe in particular earns his crust with a really very well observed study of a man keeping his shit together, while all around are taking backhanders. Washington, on the other side of the plot, seems less comfortable in his role, and never quite sets alight with the ferocity and threat-fuelled energy that he explored with, say, Training Day (perhaps he would have preferred Fuqua to stay at the helm?). There is one jump-back-in-the-seat killing on the street that makes you alive to the possibility of a major, thunderous performance, but it gutters, and fades. At the end, however, when Crowe tracks him down, and arrests him outside the Lucas family church, Washington infuriatingly shoots him a look of such weary disdain and contempt you’re ready for Show Time, but when we cut back, it’s died on his face, and the flame gutters again.

And that’s the tale of the movie; so many super scenes are dovetailed into sections where the energy just vanishes. A long period of introspection in the middle act nearly kills the impetus of the story line completely, and a trip to Vietnam (where Lucas sets up his brazen deal) could have been electric, but is almost laughably brief. It’s an attempt to keep the final moments of the search for key evidence that bit more tense, but it could have been so much more than it is.

Ultimately, Scott does what he’s always done, which is provide us with a fabulous-looking universe where all his characters make sense in the positions they hold. But the dialogue he puts in their mouths just falls short of what it ought to be. You look at the Lucas character and you want him to provide, if not a moral compass, then at least an erudite slant on one. He seems to be forever saying “this is America and we…” something something something, as if that will suffice to provide with a clear and unique voice. He’s a compulsive man, a powerful character within the world that Scott’s presented, but as a cipher he’s shallow and not at all exceptional. Throughout, you’re reminded of all those fantastic crime movies of the 70s (Serpico, the Godfathers, French Connection – which is actually name-checked rather subtly – Mean Streets, Dog Day Afternoon, and so on), but you end up wanting to go away and watch them again. I liked it, I liked it a lot, but now I’m itching to see Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle chucking his Pontiac around under the El, and I’m not sure I’ll be so keen to see this in the same way in 36 years. American Gangster is a title that should embrace everything we might want in discussing race (as a black man, Lucas is patronised by the ‘orthodox’ crime families and rises to a status above them); duty; pride; patriotism; and so on, and so on. In the end, it becomes, simply, a damn good cops and robbers movie.

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