Studying Ridley Scott's "American Gangster," it's impossible to repudiate its style, criminal swagger, and sweaty-palmed hunt for justice; it's a big-budgeted procession of star power and expansive storytelling. The drawback seems to be the picture's often perplexing gravitational pull to complete inertia.
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) was raised in the shadow of crime, keeping in line with his elder hoodlums, learning the ways of the business. Now ready to take over, Lucas travels to the conflict in Vietnam in search of pure heroin to bring to the desperate New York City streets, employing a serpentine sense of restrain to best suit his needs while he rose to success and created an empire. Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a clean cop on a dirty force, looking to rid the city of narcotics. Unexpectedly led to Lucas's streets, Roberts mounts a full-scale investigation, piecing together a case bit by bit to bring the kingpin to justice.
The first thing detected in "American Gangster" is the picture's self-discipline. Ridley Scott is not a filmmaker known for his delicate ways, often electing a full fireworks display when only a charcoal snake is necessary. "Gangster" shows the director turning a corner in his career, dialing down his penchant for overstated theatrics and treating Lucas's journey with muted respect. It's classic storytelling, setting aside his instincts and traditionally lush color pallet to stay focused on the paralleling plots, delighting in the way they smash into each other dramatically, not visually.
Yes, "Gangster" is a film you've seen before: "Blow" with serious coin, "Scarface" with better suits, or any other drug-centric saga that takes the viewer on a ride through time and swelling power. Scott doesn't challenge the material as much as allows it space, which, over the 150-minute running time, can become a little sluggish. It's a sprawling epic with crooked cops, finger-snap turns of gunfire, and family issues, but nothing requires the film to be this long. An easy 20 minutes could've been shorn without anyone missing the beats, but Scott is in this for the long run, and I can't discourage a habitual style-abuser his moment of repentance.
I could sit here and write about specific scenes that thrilled me, but, again, they are familiar sights: Frank exerting his power or Richie grabbing that crucial clue. It's pure routine, but Scott has an amazing eye for the details, and that extends to the performances as much as it does to the globe-trotting narrative.
I've been critical of Denzel Washington's acting efforts before, and I still feel the performer has a profound fear of stretching. "Gangster" plays to Washington's strengths of resolute blunt force and thousand-dollar-suit charm. He's become the John Wayne of his generation: perfecting his one acting face of mild displeasure and sticking to his guns the rest of his career.
Russell Crowe has the more fluid role, accepted by an actor who desires any opening to tinker with various personalities. Richie is an unusually mousy character for Crowe, but his performance discovers the right contrast between constant vocational do-goodery and the shambles of his personal life, which flame out through neglectful parenting and one-night-stands. Crowe also is allowed the more procedural moments of the film, which involve the audience more than Frank's distancing and familiar high-life.
Also available on this DVD is an "Unrated Extended Cut" running 19 minutes longer than the theatrical presentation. The new scenes aren't plentiful, and while some are appealing (Lucas enjoying a boardwalk memory of former boss Bumpy Johnson), the rest are just deeper helpings of already established character arcs. The new cut is simply fatter, and, for "American Gangster," this is not necessarily a good thing.
The largest addition is an extended ending, featuring Lucas and Roberts on the "new" streets of New York, with Lucas adjusting to the culture change. It's an atrocious, superfluous scene, and another reason to skip this useless, unexplained "Extended Cut" all together.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), the visual punch of "American Gangster" failed to register during the theatrical release and the DVD follows suit. This is not a pretty film to begin with, but the image here is milky, with unstable black levels and a disappointing muting of colors that managed to survive Ridley Scott's post-production delousing of vibrancy.
Oddly, the additional sequences on the "Extended Cut" are quite noticeable simply because they haven't been color-corrected to theatrical standards, leaving the new scenes bright and easy to spot.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix is a dream, keeping dialogue and score crisp and adequately separated, while allowing a passionate soundtrack presence in the surrounds. The songs come through loud and proud, along with the eventual displays of gunfire and assorted cop crackdown shenanigans. A crystal-clear audio experience.
A feature-length commentary from director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian is available on the theatrical cut only. Much like his previous commentary tracks, Scott reveals himself to be a dry, flavorless speaker; knowledgeable of every inch of his motion picture, but lacking a crucial sense of humor to make 150 minutes of discussion a juicy sit.
Certainly Scott is informative discussing the picture's logistical headaches, historical accuracy, relationships with his blockbuster stars, coffee cup chess games, trust in his cinematographers, Cuban cigars, fake snow, and the death of the gritty New York City depicted in the film. The man is a carrot-topped wellspring of cinematic knowledge, and the commentary contains endless technical detail only Scott, with his clipped accent and freewheeling thought process, could deliver.
However, there are moments, such as Scott equating carefully-rationed heroin to a casual cigar habit, which reveal a tangential Ridley Scott can be a tedious, baffling experience.
Zaillian (recorded separately) is heard from less, yet offers fascinating ideas on the difficulties trying to shave Lucas's experiences down to a single movie and somehow leave room for Richie's journey. It's only a matter of time before the creative process is abandoned and Zaillian starts to point out historical accuracies and what was altered from his original script. Both Scott and Zaillian are obsessed with reassuring the listener the details of "American Gangster" are true.
Deleted scenes (4 minutes) contain a wedding sequence and a brief alternate opening for the film that emphasizes Lucas's cold-blooded nature.
"Fallen Empire: Making 'American Gangster'" (78 minutes) is an extensive and thrilling documentary covering nearly the entire production process. It starts with the historical grounding of the film, offering interviews with the real-life Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. The two chat happily about the characters and life on the cold, dark streets. Next comes costume talk with designer Janty Yates, who had the time of her life dreaming up clothes for the 60s/70s time period.
Production coverage arrives with a discussion of the previous attempt to make "Gangster" with director Antoine Fuqua. Producer Brian Grazer is the ringleader here, working hard to keep the project alive when the studio pulled out of the film. Once Ridley Scott became interested in the project, everything fell back into place and the production was off once again. Special attention is placed on the creation of the Ali vs. Frazier fight sequence, and the unique challenges it brought to the production.
A look at the construction of the soundtrack includes interviews with music supervisor Kathy Nelson and producer Hank Shocklee. Editing brings out participation from Pietro Scalia, who had the daunting task of assembling the epic film into a tight cut. Finally, composer Marc Streitenfeld is handed a spotlight of his own as he describes the scoring process.
This is what a behind-the-scenes documentary should be.
"Script Meeting" (8 minutes) is a videotaped script conference between Ridley Scott, Steve Zaillian, Branko Lustig, and Richie Roberts. The home movie is intercut with film clips to best explore the brainstorming session.
"Heroin Test Show & Tell" (9 minutes) shows Scott discussing and testing fake junk with prop master Peter Gelfman and NYPD technical consultant Scott Dillin.
"Setting up the Takedown" (8 minutes) visits the set to watch Scott and his willing crew choreograph the drug bust centerpiece of the film.
A theatrical trailer has not been included on this DVD.
"American Gangster" is a dependable crime saga that neither disappoints nor challenges the genre. It's steady Hollywood storytelling from a former directorial master, acted with aplomb by two superstars, and tangos with enough ice cold criminal idolatry to fuel at least ten rap albums.
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