Following the RUNAWAY SUCCESS of my post on cowardly Will Smith vehicle I am Legend (22 comments and counting, mark you) I have been prevailed upon (by me) to run my highly developed critical eye (yeah, right) over Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. I’m going to find this considerably more difficult to take the piss out of, however, and hence I imagine the laughs (and therefore the comments) will be less. But here goes, and beware of minor spoilers.
American Gangster is, in many ways, a film split in two. It’s split lengthways, in that the two main stars, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, play gangster and cop, and only for a very brief period at the end are they in the same scenes together. But it’s also split two thirds of the way in. The first hour and a half are devoted to the ruthless rise of Denzel Washington’s character to the biggest gangster in New York while Russell Crowe’s character does, well, some other stuff. The last hour or so there’s a sharp change of gear as the cop begins an investigation into the criminal.
Denzel Washington is a great actor, I reckon, though probably fitting into that category of actors that are basically more or less the same in every role, just a very good the same (no bad thing, Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino are not dissimilar in this regard). I’ve never seen Denzel be less than good, and often very good, and he’s good here as the ruthless man of violence on his way to the top of the ladder. But it’s a strangely flat, emotionless, absent performance. Probably that’s a pretty good representation of a complete psycopath, but it leaves the viewer (or at least this viewer) oddly uninvolved. I sat there on my sofa chomping through my Quality Street as he set people on fire and blew their brains out, neither much condemning the man nor much sympathising with him, just thinking that I like the pink Quality Streets most (the fudge ones). Don’t get me wrong, it was a good performance, but a long way from his best.
Then there’s Russell Crowe. What to say about Russell Crowe? When I first saw this guy in Romper Stomper, and then in one of my favourite films, LA Confidential, he blew my doors right off with some of the hardest-hitting angry acting you’ll ever see. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do a man ready to explode with rage as well as he did in these two films. Since then, though, he seems intent on showing the many, many other sides to Russell Crowe, man of a hundred faces. Not that he’s bad at other stuff – he was great in The Insider (ace film) and good in Master and Commander (also a good film). I actually thought he was more than a bit hammy in Gladiator, but my wife and apparently every other female on the planet strongly disagrees. I ain’t seen him do much good lately, though. As a big enthusiast for westerns I was really looking forward to seeing him play an outlaw in 3.10 to Yuma (a disappointing film). “Now he’ll get out the bad!” I thought, but despite having all the cool lines he got totally acted out of the wild west by Christian Bale. Like a sulky singer who refuses to play his biggest hits on tour and will only do his experimental new material, he steadfastly refuses to get nasty on screen, instead (it would appear) preferring to vent his spleen on hotel clerks and so forth in real life. And I found him pretty bland in American Gangster. Not bad, but certainly forgettable. Like crabsticks. Disappointing (again) from a man I know can deliver so much more.
It wasn’t all his fault, to be fair. His sections of the film, at least in the earlier part, seemed a bit of an afterthought, rather ponderously and unnecesarily setting up his credentials as the one good cop in a world gone bad before actually getting him involved in some investigating. A sub-plot about his neglect of his wife and kid didn’t really seem to go anywhere in the end. It was all stuff I felt could have been implied just as well with a few well-placed lines of dialogue, as though they were casting about for things for him to do while Denzel built his criminal empire.
But there were some problems on Denzel’s side of the film as well, for me. It was all very serviceable, with some great evocation of sixties/seventies Harlem (not that I was there to check the validity, but it looked right to me) and some really fantastic music. But it was kinda drawn-out and slow moving, and the stone-faced gangster on his way to disaster reminded me way too much of a whole stack of other rise of a gangster films. He disposes of cocky competitors in merciless ways. He buys a club, and a piano, then his guys snort lines of coke off it. He lords it up by the boxing ring. He has naked women handling his drug factory, just like Wesley Snipes did way back when in New Jack City. His relationship with his trophy wife in particular seemed like a bit of a carbon copy of Pacino and Pfeiffer in Scarface. It’s all supposedly based on a true story, for sure, but there was plenty of room for interpretation that could have taken us into newer waters.
Now, having said all that, after about an hour and a half (over half way through, mark you) the film seemed suddenly to kick into a higher gear. Crowe begins an investigation into Washington and matters become much more focused and involving. There’s an excellent sequence of a police raid that was genuinely tense and scary. And, finally, there’s a great scene between the two leads that threatens to say something meaningful about society. It felt like a solid film by this point, but it all left me a bit frustrated, wondering whether the first hour and a half couldn’t have been drastically cut down or even excised completely. The French Connection doesn’t begin by showing you the early part of Popeye Doyle’s career in tedious detail. It effortlessly demonstrates what you need to know about his character through his actions and his dialogue, while getting on quick with the work in hand.
Overall, I was left wondering what new tricks this film really brought to a very well-trodden genre. Despite some passing attempts to show the hideous cost of Washington’s heroin empire, the film didn’t really seem to me to revel in the gangster cool any less than Scarface, or King of New York, or Deep Cover even, and it had nothing like the hard edge of earlier crime classics like The French Connection or, for that matter, The Godfather. Perhaps Washington’s oddly emotionless performance had something to do with it. It almost made it worse from this point of view that it was based on a true story, and offered the hint of having something important to say. There was almost a sense of “this is a clever and significant treatment of the subject matter, so it’s fine to enjoy watching Denzel Washington blow people’s brains out and think no more about it.” He’s made to look noble by comparison with other criminals because he has sound business practices, and with the bent cops who leech off him, and in the end he’s offered a rather unconvincingly upbeat redemption. I felt like the viewer was invited to feel pretty good about their gangster, despite the fact that, when the credits rolled and you thought about it, he was clearly a man about as evil as it’s possible to be, who’d directly committed at least three murders and profiteered from death and misery on a massive scale.
I’ve been harsh, perhaps, but it’s Ridley Scott, man, you should expect a lot. In summary, a rather ponderous rise of the gangster enlivened by a much punchier final act. Scarface, for all its over-the-top gaudy splatter, seemed to have more to say about the mentality, and the morality, of a drug-lord.