Monday, February 25, 2008

American Gangster: Grade B

American Gangster (2007)
Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Director Ridley Scott.

It may be unfair to compare this movie to The Godfather, but if you’re going to do an American gangster movie, you have to be ready for that. Well, this is no Godfather. The characters are two-dimensional, despite obvious efforts to round them out, with a child custody struggle for Crowe, a romantic relationship for Washington. But those subthemes are formulaic and fail to get us inside the character. In The Godfather you had the sweep of history, the ethnic bond of family, driving ambition, and the principle of vendetta all giving context to the characters’ actions. This movie, by contrast, is straight cops-n-robbers, without developing the psychology of either side.

Washington’s drug-dealing kingpin is slick but too cool, never vulnerable except once when he burns a chinchilla coat. But his self-blindness that led up to that was not consistent with his character in the first place. Crowe’s detective is a sloppy, taciturn, self-indulgent, down-on-his-luck working class cop who nevertheless has the mind of a brilliant attorney and the moral fiber of Elliot Ness. We don’t know why he returned a seized million dollars to authorities. Just because it was the right thing to do? Okay, but how did his character escape the pervasive police corruption so well documented in this movie? We have no idea. The characters are flat, even though they are based on a true story and the real-life people who are shown in the DVD extras. A straight documentary film might have been more nuanced than this fictionalized story.

There are plenty of questions to raise about the story. Do we really believe that Washington would step from a diner, shoot a man through the head at noon on a city street with a hundred onlookers, then just go back to his lunch? Does a criminal who “names” corrupt police officers provide enough evidence to convict? Would the prosecution really forgive and forget the military connection that made the whole drug smuggling operation possible? And what was the point of cameo roles by Cuba Gooding and Armande Assante? They contributed nothing more than the dozens of naked women who add gratuitous nipples to the screen. Finally, we have to ask, what was the point of this movie? Morality or legality are never seriously considered. There is no significant character development. Why did this movie need to be made? There is plenty to enjoy, including fine acting, directing, and cinematography, but despite being engaging and watchable throughout, the movie has a disappointing lack of fizz.

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