Skip to main content

You think you’re going to take a hundred kilos of heroin into the US and you don’t work for anyone? Someone is going to allow that?

American Gangster
(2007)

(SPOILERS) Is this the most rote of all Ridley Scott's movies? I know, there’s serious competition, particularly in his post-Gladiator workhorse mode. On first viewing, there’s a temptation to forgive American Gangster its slackness and shocking lack of internal tension on the basis of the embarrassment of names and faces attached, but that wears very thin very quickly upon revisit. Even the then-Scott talisman of Russell Crowe and the usually reliable Denzel Washington seem cast adrift in this true-life-but-not-all-that-much-really-to-be-honest period piece concerning drug dealer Frank Lucas.


The picture took seven years to get made, during which time it went from Ridders to Brian De Palma to Antoine Fuqua to Peter Berg and then back to Ridders again, with Steven Zaillian and then Terry George and then Zaillian furnishing the screenplay. You can see the appeal, manufacturing – as in, much of the content has been invented, both through Lucas’ embellished confessions and the composite portrait of Detective Richie Roberts as the main player in bringing him down – a "factual" version of Heat – a comparison that isn’t only unavoidable but is actively courted – but both screenplay and direction are entirely lacking as far furnishing events with substance and conviction are concerned. 


American Gangster has absolutely no personality, even stylistically. We should be impressed by Frank's cunning and daring, willing him to succeed just as we're willing Richie to bring him to justice – that's the sign of good telling in this sort of tale – but Scott lets the entire enterprise flounder. Character traits are left searching for underlying motivation, failing to overcome their inherent clichés (not least their personal lives, from Richie's ex Carla Gugino and his child custody battle to Frank being an unflinching hard guy devoted to his mother). 


Worse, neither antagonist nor protagonist are terribly interesting. Washington never seems stirred to give Frank a glimmer of an internal process, so he just seems blandly stoic. Early in his rise, there are teases of interest – his trip to Vietnam, going to the source to make a deal, might be the highlight of the picture, showing his ambition and self-confidence – but the movie doesn’t make good on the warning that Frank won’t be able to get away with this. He has a remarkably easy ride, meaning it's one mostly free of tension. There are no highs or lows, no real tests and tribulations. 


TangoYou’re going to shoot me, in front of everybody?

Frank has his opponents but dispatching them comes without any pressure; it's a great idea for a scene, Frank killing Tango (Idris Elba, always more convincing when going American) in broad daylight on a crowded street before casually returning to his lunch, but as shot by Scott, there’s has no impact. The opening sees Frank dousing a man in petrol and setting him alight, and later he slams a man's head in a piano, but we’re unstirred by his ruthless tendencies because we don’t really believe them. There's none of the grim steel of a peak De Niro or Pesci. Frank warns brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor – this cast is great, and mostly goes to waste) "The loudest one in the room is the weakest one" and it’s clearly meant as a foreshadowing of his downfall after wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) buys him a flash coat he then wears to the Ali-Frazier match, so getting him noticed in all the wrong ways, but it doesn't play. Scorsese would have structured an engrossing rise then decline and fall. Scott just has things happen. It’s kind of boring.


RobertsWho can afford to sell stuff that’s twice as good for half as much?

Crowe fares marginally better with "fucking boy scout" Roberts (labelled as such for turning in $1m found in the back of a car) but there’s also little suspense in his being shunned by his peers, certainly not of the Serpico variety. Scott does nothing to step up the drama on either side of the fence. Heat this most certainly is not. There are momentary interludes – the corpse that addict partner John Ortiz – typically OTT – leaves at a scene of mounting tension, an altercation with Josh Brolin’s bent cop (Brolin rocking a natty period tache) as Roberts is told "Never, ever come into this city unannounced" – but they’re no more than that. A great moviemaker would have the payoff to Brolin ("Before you get on that bridge again, you should call me first") as a punch-the-air moment of vindication, but here you barely notice.


The picture is littered with great players and big names – Ted Levine, Armand Assante, John Hawkes, RZA, Joe Morton, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jon Polito, Norman Reedus – but hardly anyone leaves an impression. There's a firefight in the lead up to Frank's arrest, but it's too little too late. And the arrest itself, outside a church to the strains of Amazing Grace is so corny, it should have been nixed by wiser minds as soon as it occurred to the director. As for the waited-for Heat head-to-head scene between the leading men, it fails to materialise as an event. It's a damp squib; if you want Crowe and Denzel performing together, watch Virtuosity instead. 


This might be the real point to have given up on Scott, if you hadn’t seen the signs already; everything about the production is profoundly vanilla. The movie’s in the same vein as other real-life dramas he's handled but even more so, with little propulsion or drive, a project completed on autopilot. And for someone recently admonishing the spending of wanton cash, it's mystifying where the $100m American Gangster price tag went. Maybe it's in a car boot somewhere.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
(SPOILERS) Alexander Salkind (alongside son Ilya) inhabited not dissimilar territory to the more prolific Dino De Laurentis, in that his idea of manufacturing a huge blockbuster appeared to be throwing money at it while being stingy with, or failing to appreciate, talent where it counted. Failing to understand the essential ingredients for a quality movie, basically, something various Hollywood moguls of the ‘80s would inherit. Santa Claus: The Movie arrived in the wake of his previously colon-ed big hit, Superman: The Movie, the producer apparently operating under the delusion that flying effects and :The Movie in the title would induce audiences to part with their cash, as if they awarded Saint Nick a must-see superhero mantle. The only surprise was that his final cinematic effort, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, wasn’t similarly sold, but maybe he’d learned his lesson by then. Or maybe not, given the behind-camera talent he failed to secure.

When primal forces of nature tell you to do something, the prudent thing is not to quibble over details.

Field of Dreams (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s a near-Frank Darabont quality to Phil Alden Robinson producing such a beloved feature and then subsequently offering not all that much of note. But Darabont, at least, was in the same ballpark as The Shawshank Redemption with The Green MileSneakers is good fun, The Sum of All Our Fears was a decent-sized success, but nothing since has come close to his sophomore directorial effort in terms of quality. You might put that down to the source material, WP Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, but the captivating magical-realist balance hit by Field of Dreams is a deceptively difficult one to strike, and the biggest compliment you can play Robinson is that he makes it look easy.

On a long enough timeline, the survival of everyone drops to zero.

Fight Club (1999)
(SPOILERS) Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…