Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Rants on "American Gangster"

I hate to be prejudiced towards American Gangster, because there is nothing here in Ridley Scott's gangster epic to excatly poo-poo on, but The Departed is superior in nearly every way to this film. I know I shouldn't be comparing films as crudely as this, especially when one is as brilliant and perfect as The Departed, but I can't really help it- the comparisons are practically begging to be drawn out.

But that's not to say that American Gangster, based on it's own merits, is necessarily a bad film. On the contrary, it's a well-made film, with an interesting and, at times, intense script and some good quality acting. The story may seem a bit familiar, but writer Steve Zaillian does an amiable job making it seem fresh and, even at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the film whizzes by.

But, unfortunately, there are those pesky comparisons The Departed that really start to take away from this film. The first thing that jumped out at me were the dimensions of characters in both films. In The Departed, you had real characters that were both entertaining and thought provoking: Sullivan, the bad guy posing as the good guy; Costigan, the good guy posing as the bad guy; Costello, the over-the-top, maniacal ringleader; and Dignam, the foul-mouthed, scene-stealing bad ass. Plus, these men were all three dimensional and weren't either "black" or "white." In American Gangster, both Denzel Washington's Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts are practically old-fashioned sterotypes of what is "wrong" (selling dope) and what is "right" (saying no to corruption). Unfortunately, this carries over into their performances. I thought Washington did a fine job, but the fact that he was the "bad" guy the whole time really took something away. And Crowe was basically meh- not much of a character on paper and he didn't really try to add anything to make him a character on screen.

Another thing that bugged me about American Gangster was the fact that Harlem, which Frank Lucas was supposed to represent and love, wasn't shown with the same love that Boston was given in The Departed. While you could tell that The Departed was filmed in Boston, American Gangster might as well have been shot in a back lot in Los Angeles, that's how far removed from the city it was.

So what did I like about American Gangster? As with Into the Wild, the ending shot was a big redeeming factor- ambiguous and affecting; that scene where Washington shoots the other gangster in the middle of the street had me jumping out of my seat; Roger Bart's Dignam-esque cameo towards the end of the film as the U.S. Attorney who bitches out Russell Crowe when he goes through the plane arriving from Vietnam was an exciting jolt of energy and made me wish he was around longer; the quick pacing; Ruby Dee bitch slapping Denzel Washington.

In the end, I guess it was high expectations that really killed American Gangster for me. Maybe another viewing with slightly lowered expectations will make this film stand out more.

My Rating: *** 1/2

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