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.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.