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November 17, 2007

Moviegoing: "American Gangster"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Is there something in the air? A few days ago I watched and blogged about Robert De Niro's somber CIA movie "The Good Shepherd." Today I watched a very similar movie, Ridley Scott's equally somber "American Gangster," about a real-life 1970s black NYC drug kingpin (Denzel Washington) and the lawman (Russell Crowe) who took him down.

It really is bizarre how close the two movies are in tone and approach. They're both slow, dark, and "Godfather"-ish in style and ambition. "American Gangster" even has the same running time (2 hours and 50 minutes) that "The Good Shepherd" does.

What's weirdest of all is that I found both movies completely uninvolving, and for semi-similar reasons. In "The Good Shepherd," dramatic-narrative immediacy is sacrificed for the sake of telling the story of how elite WASPs made the CIA their own club. In "American Gangster," dramatic immediacy is sacrificed for the sake of ...

Well, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what. An important statement always seems to be on the verge of being made -- the movie is entitled "American Gangster," after all. But what this important statement might be remains a mystery. Nonetheless, there are many, many cutaways to TV news shows reporting how badly things are going in Vietnam. Something is clearly being said.

In any case, the film muffs basic storytelling over and over again. (At one point I whispered to The Wife, "I wouldn't have let this script in the front door, would you?" "No way," she whispered back.) Just a few of many examples: Because we see so little of his rise to the top, we're never sure what to make of the Denzel character. One face-off, one rival murdered -- and voila, it's settled. Denzel the chauffeur has become Denzel the king of Harlem. Since we never see his struggle, we never know whether to take him as a rousing but scary anti-hero or as a role model operating in a tough environment.

But simple logistics don't play a big role in this movie generally. When Denzel wants some face-to-face time with his Southeast Asia drug connection during the very week Vietnam is collapsing -- hey, no problemo, he's there. I'd have loved to be told which airline he flew in on.

The Russell Crowe character, meanwhile -- well, what on earth is he? There are times when he seems to be a cop and others when he seems to be a D.A. Yet if he's a cop, why is he acting as a D.A. at trials? And if he's a D.A., what is he doing with gun in hand leading on-the-streets investigations?

Crowe's character's inner life is also a mystery. His honesty and passion for justice are remarkable -- yet where do they come from? We're given only a few shots of him in his working-class element, and almost nothing of him at home.

It's hard to know what to make of the fact that the Crowe character is Jewish. Catching a glimpse of the Star of David around Crowe's neck, we may well think, "Tough-guy Aussie Russell Crowe is playing a Jewish NYC cop? Or a Jewish cop-D.A.? Or something? What the hell?"

Not only are we struggling with some mighty unlikely casting, we're wrestling with the very idea of a Jewish NYC cop. It isn't that such creatures don't exist, I guess, though I just Googled "new york city policeman jewish" and didn't turn up much of anything. (New York City is not exactly a-swarm with Jewish cops.) But since they're so very, very rare, shouldn't we at least have been given a scene or two to help us understand how such a phenomenon came about?

Oversights like these don't just pepper the film, they characterize it. In a typical moment near the story's climax, Crowe is leading a cop charge on Denzel's drug factory. It's the culmination of all Crowe's work, his righteousness, his passion. Yet midway through the assault, he takes off on foot after one particular gangster. It's a pretty exciting chase, I guess. But even while the pulse dutifully pounded I was thinking, "Wait a minute, what's Russell Crowe doing, leaving behind the main action? He's supposed to be running that show!" I doubt that we were meant to think, "This character is the kind of guy who freely abandons important leadership responsibilities when the moment comes for an exciting chase scene" -- but what else can we conclude?

What would normally be considered the moments in the story that demand to be dramatized -- turning points, choices made, actions taken, and consequences endured -- are either absent from the film or pass by in montages. (The montage appears to be Ridley Scott's natural form.) Incidentally, given the way movies are put together, I don't feel I can blame these oversights on Steve Zaillian, the film's writer. For all I know, the film as it stands is the result of endless committee meetings; or perhaps Zaillian was hired merely to help Ridley Scott realize the film he already had in mind. How would I know?

Whatever the case, the film is all moments and modules. Although it's anything but a post-modern pastiche, "American Gangster" is a cut-and-paste job made up of the kinds of Great Moments you'd hope a film like this would include. Suffice it to say that the influence of movies like "The Godfather," "Scarface," "GoodFellas," "Serpico" and "Foxy Brown" isn't hard to detect.

And then there's Ridley Scott's direction. Oh, it's all very polished and mature. But Ridley Scott's a weird case, isn't he? I mean, he's immensely talented and accomplished, and certainly "Alien" and "Blade Runner" belong on any list of influential movies from the last few decades. But has Ridley Scott ever made a movie that you've found involving on a simple human level? Everything in a Ridley Scott movie seems to click so beautifully into place that you never doubt that you're in the hands of an expert. Yet -- for me, anyway -- nothing ever clicks into place emotionally.

I watched "American Gangster" thinking that Ridley Scott is the Default Director. If you want a movie that looks and sounds serious and professional, you can't do better than choose Ridley Scott to direct it. But he seems to direct by checklist. Intensity? Check. Grit? Check. Atmosphere? Check. OK, on to the next set-up. Scott gets all the tangibles right but seems oblivious to the intangibles. He's the Sir Norman Foster of film directors -- impressive, important, unavoidable, yet spare me.

The movie does deliver a fair share of minor pleasures. Denzel Washington does his usual quiet, dignified, and stylish underplaying. No one could accuse him of trying anything new here, god knows, but if standard-issue Denzel is your cup of tea you'll find potsfuls of it here. Russell Crowe looks gruff, puffy, and slovenly -- and The Wife smiled fondly and found him bad-boy hot, just as many women always do. (The Russell Crowe magic eludes me.) Supersexy and supertalented Carla Gugino manages to radiate all kinds of moods despite only appearing in a couple of scenes.

And tons of good performers rock the joint in smaller roles. Why wouldn't they? They get to swagger; they get to wear tight polyester pants, frightful haircuts, and Burt Reynolds moustaches. The '70s, eh? When styles were so hideous they were grrrrrrrreat. The film also features a lot of nostalgia for old-fashioned technology: big awful Detroit cars, decaying city services, public phone booths, black and white TVs ...

The main thing "American Gangster" had me thinking, though, was "Lordy, 'Scarface' and 'Goodfellas' really were brilliant." For one thing, both films manage to get you cheering -- half against your will, of course -- for bad guys. For another, their styles merge with their material. The way Scorsese mixes Cassavetes-style acting with hypercaffeinated camerawork brings you into the fun of being a jive-talking, big-spending wiseguy. De Palma's tropicalismo flamboyance conveys a coked-out, sleazy-glam brand of self-immolation. I also find it a big plus that Scorsese and De Palma don't shrink from lustiness, comedy, or the absurd. In "American Gangster," Ridley Scott directs with a kind of straight-faced, impersonal, ponderous realism that isn't going to lure anyone into a distinctive and intoxicating way of seeing or being.

Just because I enjoy keeping track of these things: The film is full of ethnic tribes -- Italians, Puerto Ricans, blacks. And it makes a point of taking no note of this. City life is a big happy stew, a groovy ethnic jumble, the film is saying. Whitebread sorts, though, are conspicuous by their absence from this jumble -- or they are until a late-in-the-film confrontation between the Russell Crowe character and a WASPy State Department (or maybe FBI) authority. Why was I not surprised when the WASP manages in his one brief appearance to use the word "kike" and the word "nigger"? Until that point, ethnic variety is present, even pungent, yet taken casually and for granted. Enter the WASP, and the atmosphere turns poisonous.

Sigh: I do sometimes grow a little tired of films labeling the straight WASPy male character as "the film's one racist." Is it fair for me to raise the point that, during my years in New York City, I've heard blacks, Jews, and Italians say despicable things about whitebread people more often -- and far more openly -- than I've ever heard whitebread sorts say despicable things about blacks, Jews, and Italians? (New York City's many ethnic groups don't generally wish each other well either.) You won't see much of that in today's movies, though.

In any case, I'm guessing that Ridley Scott is one of those British visitors to the U.S. who will never let us forget that they subscribe to The Guardian and we don't. Just a hunch!

Question for the day: Has "epic" come to mean "overproduced, underdramatized, and 'way too long"?

Semi-related: I wrote about blaxploitation films here, and about Tony Scott's "Domino" here. Tony Scott is Ridley Scott's younger brother. Ridley Scott talks to UGO about "American Gangster."



posted by Michael at November 17, 2007


Is this the era of the very well-made, very bad movie?

Posted by: Robert Townshend on November 17, 2007 4:41 AM

Are you serious? THE GOOD SHEPHERD and AMERICAN GANGSTER similar in tone?

I really don't know how you came up with this conclusion. Honestly.

And your main problem with AMERICAN GANGSTER is the "WASP" Federal agent who used derogatory words for blacks and Jews? You mean to say you didn't hear the Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) character used a degoratory word for Asians? Interesting.

Posted by: Rosie Powell on November 17, 2007 5:07 AM

After reading your review, I'm beginning to even wonder if you were even watching this film. Your review . . . I don't know. Your criticisms are so shallow.

Posted by: Rosie Powell on November 17, 2007 5:09 AM


Where on earth did you get the idea Michael's 'main problem' with the film was with the WASP character's bigotry? He spent two paragraphs out of twenty on that subject.

After reading your post, I'm beginning to wonder if you were even reading the review. Your review of his review...I don't know. Your criticisms are so shallow.

Posted by: PatrickH on November 17, 2007 11:13 AM

Robert -- The level of technical polish in movies these days is often amazingly high, isn't it? I wonder if audiences generally accept and demand that level of gloss. Does it make up for the underfed stories and characters for many of them?

Rosie - So you enjoyed "American Gangster"? If you did, that's interesting, why not just say so? As for similarities between "Good Shepherd" and "AG," sure: they're both dark, they're both neo-'70s, they're both super-straight-faced, they're both 2 hours and 50 minutes long ... That's enough of a list for me. But you're certainly right that they differ too. I'd say "AG" is more extraverted and Sidney Lumet and "Good Shepherd" is more introverted and Coppola. But I'm sure there's much else to say too.

PatrickH -- Maybe I should label my grumpy asides a little more boldly? What do you think?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 17, 2007 12:01 PM

I thought Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" was one of the better war movies ever made.

Shame to hear about American Gangster.

Posted by: mq on November 17, 2007 12:44 PM

With very few exceptions, I'm just not interested in movies than run over two hours.

Posted by: Peter on November 17, 2007 1:23 PM

You aren't the only reviewer who complained that it's unclear whether Crowe's character was a cop or a DA. To me, it was perfectly clear - he was in law school (night school, I think, not sure) during the first part of the film - he was embarrassed and self-conscious to get up and speak in public. Midway or so the film shows a scene of him taking the law exam and a later scene showing him getting the results. This investigation (into Denzel's operation) took place over several years and, presumably, there's a bit of time between the arrest, indictment and trial. By the time it gets to trial, Crowe's character is now a DA and experiences a bit of nervousness in his first speech in court (supposed to bring the character full circle, doncha know). Now, that may well be implausible (or maybe it's based on the real facts of the case, I don't know) but it was clear to me what the movie intended.

Also, not sure if it makes any difference, but Crowe's character wasn't an NYPD policeman - remember the flack he got from the NYPD when he crossed the bridge? He was a Jersey policeman the entire time (and then a Jersey DA). I don't know if there are more Jersey Jewish cops than NYPD Jewish cops, so maybe your point still stands, but since you missed that not very obscure point I'm wandering over to Rosie's view: are you sure you were watching this film?

Having said that, the film struck me as having the form of greatness rather than actual greatness and a fair amount of what you say I agree with, in particular the opacity of Denzel's character. You're right, Ridley Scott has this very ponderous tone without actually having anything substantial to say. Everything this film had to say has already been said better.

Agree with the wife about Russell Crowe, however. :)

Posted by: Judith Sears on November 19, 2007 12:03 AM

"Everything in a Ridley Scott movie seems to click so beautifully into place that you never doubt that you're in the hands of an expert."

One big thing that never clicks for me in a Scott movie is the basic narrative. Scott is an expert at images, but he never seems to have mastered storytelling 101. Pick any Scott movie at random--"Thelma and Louise," "Gladiator" -- and what you have are a random assemblage of emotional/action moments with very little in the way of narrative connective tissue. He actually seems to have gotten worse in this regard, maybe because his early movies (like "Alien") had fairly basic storylines. Now that he's graduated to big sprawling narratives his major weakness really sticks out.

I would also say that as he's moved into epics his inability to develop big complex themes is a glaring liability too. You note it here when you talk about how he throws Vietnam references seemingly at random into the story. I've gotten that sense in his other movies too. He seems to *want* to make a Big Statement in movies like "Blade Runner" and "Thelma and Louise," but darned if I can ever figure out what it is.

I suspect that he tosses "statementy" moments into his movies in the same way that he tosses action-packed and emotional moments.

Posted by: Steve on November 19, 2007 3:01 PM

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