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

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

The Reverend Thomas says you wet his trousers.

Double Bunk (1961) (SPOILERS) In casting terms, Double Bunk could be a sequel to the previous year’s magnificent School for Scoundrels . This time, Ian Carmichael and Janette Scott (he still almost twice her age) are wedded, and the former continues to make dumb choices. Despite being an unlikely mechanic, Carmichael allows himself to be sold a lemon of a houseboat; last time it was the Nifty Nine. And Dennis Price is once again on hand, trying to fleece him in various ways. Indeed, the screenplay might not be a patch on School for Scoundrels , but with Sid James and the fabulous Liz Fraser also on board, the casting can’t be faulted.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.