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?
(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.
Tango: You’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.
Roberts: Who 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.
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