Crime movies are probably my favorite genre. I love crooks and cops and the games they play. American Gangster isn't going to make anyone forget classics of our past, but it is worth checking out if you are a fan.
American Gangster certainly had the feel of an Oscar contender when it was released in November 2007. Starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, both who have a best actor prize and multiple nominations, and directed by Ridley Scott, who has sat in the losing best director seat three times; the crime saga had all its ducks in a row for critical and award season windfall. Things didn’t go as expected, though, as the movie only received nominations for art direction and an underserved nod to the barely used Ruby Dee. The lack of love is primarily because American Gangster isn’t the classic epic it clearly aspires to be; it’s just a better than average crime movie.
Washington portrays real-life drug kingpin Frank Lucas, who controlled the heroin trade from Harlem during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Lucas buys his drugs directly from the growers in Thailand and with higher purity, fewer middlemen, and vicious enforcement of his territory, soon exceeds the reach of the Italian mafia. He brings his brothers, including Huey (portrayed by the underused Chiwetel Ejiofor), and other relatives up from North Carolina to help with the growing business. The bigger he gets the more problems Lucas encounters with flashy associates (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), his beautiful young wife (Lymari Nadal), and his mother (Dee).
Lucas’ rise is shown on a parallel track with Crowe’s portrayal of New Jersey cop Richie Roberts. Crowe is going to law school at night and fighting with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) over custody of their son. He is distrusted by other cops because he turned in nearly $1 million found in a car rather than keep it, but ends up putting together his own team (including John Hawkes and RZA) to take on large scale drug gangs. This leads Roberts to Lucas and his organization who are shipping heroin in the coffins of American servicemen killed in Vietnam.
Roberts and Lucas don’t meet until almost the end of the movie and the story often feels like two separate films about completely unrelated characters. The one character who moves between the two stories is corrupt cop Trupo (Josh Brolin in his second ignored dynamo performance of the year), but the lack of interaction between Washington and Crowe keeps the movie from achieving any sort of tension about the result. They have similarities in that their personal lives are almost the perfect reverse of their professional activities, but the contradiction is never really explored or even delved into deeply.
Ridley Scott nails the period perfectly and the brutal violence of the world is shown unflinchingly. The movie just never moves past the sum of its parts. The parts are strong but there is no “wow” factor or uniqueness that makes you think you’re seeing something amazing or epic. The length has been drawn out to give the illusion of heft, but a portion of the story feels like filler. It doesn’t put any grand themes on the table. It aims for the middle and hits it squarely, but it has to be appreciated for that only and not for a higher achievement.
That is not to say there isn’t a lot here to like. Washington and Crowe both give good performances and either could have anchored a serviceable movie focused just on their character. The story holds your attention and several well-staged action sequences get the blood pumping. There is just too much about Lucas and Roberts that we’ve seen before. The flawed cop and the businessman-like crook are too much the staple of our cinematic memory to break new ground here.
While a shorter, more focused movie might have hit harder and left a lasting impact, American Gangster doesn’t pull punches in gritty realism. It’s not the French Connection or The Godfather, but it lands solidly in the entertaining, by-the-book, middle of crime movies.
Although the movie itself never shows itself to be anything special or unique, the DVD works hard to provide everything that a viewer could want in a 2-disc set. Rather than just tossing some deleted scenes in the extras, the first disc has two versions of the movie. The first is the theatrical release and the second is an unrated extended version with 18 minutes of additional footage. There is nothing particularly earth shattering in the new footage. The advertised "alternate ending" shows Lucas and Roberts walking throughHarlem after Lucas is released from prison. It isn't really an alternate ending, just something tacked onto the theatrical version ending. There is also a scene between Roberts and a chatty maintenance man as he walks around the location of his team's headquarters.
The theatrical version contains a commentary by Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zallian. They clearly did not record the commentary at the same time and they each have their pros and cons. Scott talks a lot about some technical details that will probably only be interesting to film buffs. He does have one of those speaking styles that comes across as a bit egomanical (think Christopher Lee in the Lord of the Rings commentary). Zallian discusses the script and how he wrote things for what is essentially two movies. In fact, he wrote two distinct scripts, the Robert’s script and the Lucas’ script and then merged them to make the final movie. There are a lot of interesting tidbits like that. The commentary is only available for the theatrical release, not the extended cut.
The second disc has quite a few lengthy extras that do a fairly good job of enhancing the movie. The center of the disc is a 78-minute making-of feature called “Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster." The section is made up of five separate featurettes that are approximately 15 minutes each and can be started individually or watched all at once with the play all function. The various sections deal with the backstory, costumes, production, a scene recreating the Ali-Frazier boxing match, and a catch-all covering the technical areas of sound, music, and editing. It’s interesting that the film has an Oscar nomination for art direction and no extra on that area.
The five areas that are included are shown with a nice amount of depth. Giving almost 15 minutes to hear how the film developed from producer Brian Grazer’s point of view is a nice treat. In fact, it is where we learn that the movie was originally going to be made by director Antoine Fuqua with Benicio Del Toro as Richie Roberts. The section on costumes is a little more information than I would want, but if that is your thing, it’s a good overview. The main performers and creative team are interviewed extensively in all five sections.
The second batch of extras is less interesting. Three eight minute “fly on the wall” segments show some behind-the-scenes meetings and events with no real narration. That works very well for “Setting up the Takedown,” which shows the scene where Richie’s crew storms Frank’s operational center. It doesn’t work so well for a conference call between Scott, Zallian, and the real Richie Roberts on the script. It’s kinda boring. Even more boring is the property master and a consultant showing Scott how they can present purity tests on drugs in the movie. It seems never-ending.
Despite the additional scenes in the extended cut, there are two more deleted scenes presented on the second disc. One is the iconic scene from the trailer where a shadowed Denzel Washington walks into an empty café, shoots directly at the camera, and then turns and walks out. The scene is nowhere in the movie but is shown here as an alternate opening, replacing the part where Frank and Bumby burn and shoot a man in an alley. The other deleted scene is from Frank’s wedding.
The 2-disc set is a case where the extras make the DVD more desirable. This is a good, but not great, movie and having a lot of choices on the DVD set helps. It isn’t an indispensable DVD, but any fan of crime movies or the two leads will get a lot out of it.