Universal // 2007 // 158 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // October 23rd, 2008
There are two sides to the American dream.
Ridley Scott teams with Russell Crowe for the third time on a period gangster/cop story set in New York -- is this the next Scorsese/De Niro?
Following the death of underworld kingpin Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III, Deep Cover), Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington, Training Day) takes over the New York drug scene his mentor left behind with an ingenious scheme to import heroin directly from Vietnam. Lucas makes it a family affair, recruiting his brothers and cousins to distribute the high quality, bargain-priced product, and eventually earn a million dollars a day. His increasing profile attracts the attention of rival dealers, the Italian mafia, and an elite narcotics squad led by Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe, L.A. Confidential).
Roberts, a womanizing working-class cop who is studying to be a lawyer on the side, became notorious in his squad by turning in about a million dollars in cash without taking any for himself -- making him persona non grata amongst his fellow cops. Corruption was so bad in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you see, that the few cops not on the take were considered a threat to those who were. Roberts' unpopularity in the department leads to his assignment in the aforementioned narc team, and as he meticulously gathers intelligence things eventually start to point in Lucas' direction.
As Lucas builds his empire, Roberts closes in, and the stakes couldn't be higher for either man.
Based on a true story.
Out of a long list of successful attributes, the element most striking to me about American Gangster is the authenticity of the costumes. Not because of attention to period detail (although that's top notch) or creative design work, but because the essence of each character is perfectly captured in the way he or she dresses. Richie Roberts is everyman incarnate in tight jeans with the outline of a wallet in the back, a slightly ill-fitting leather jacket, or a well-worn V-necked undershirt, just looking like a man with other things on his mind. Frank Lucas is the opposite, always groomed to perfection in custom-tailored suits (and no one wears a suit quite like Mr. Washington) or fine "casual" shirts, his confidence and attention to detail on full display. We know Lucas' associate Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire) is a peacock, and we know his brother Huey Lucas (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Redbelt) wants to be but isn't very good at it, just from looking at them. Costume designer Janty Yates (Miami Vice) elevates the storytelling, and helps to make the world of American Gangster so immersive.
And immersive it is, from both perspectives, thanks to a sharply structured script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and characteristically confident direction from Ridley Scott (Black Rain). Zaillian wrote early drafts of American Gangster as two separate scripts -- one following Richie Roberts, the other Frank Lucas -- ensuring each had its own tale to tell. By bringing two fully realized stories together, we get a multi-dimensional view of the events unfolding with insight and authoritative credibility. Dialogue (with the exception of some blatant but necessary exposition in an early scene with Lucas and Bumpy Johnson) rings sharp and authentic, scenes are generally punchy, and nothing about this picture seems to drag.
Performances are workmanlike and generally understated, especially those of Crowe, Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men), John Hawkes (Miami Vice), and Ted Levine (Ali). Washington is his usual commanding self, perfect for the role yet never missing an opportunity to pump his fists while shouting a line -- the character of Frank Lucas calls for a larger-than-life quality, and Washington stops just short of making lunch of the scenery.
As on the collector's edition DVD before it, we're given two cuts of American Gangster, and the results are somewhat mixed. As a first-time viewer, I highly recommend the theatrical version, as it has the most consistent pacing and by far the most satisfying and appropriate ending. The extended cut presents longer forms of existing scenes that develop characters a bit more, answers a few lingering questions, and generally paints a more complete picture of the story. But then we get to the ending, where the biggest differences lie -- and, in place of the elegant, telling image that Scott chose to leave us with theatrically, we find a drawn-out, sentimental, and altogether unnecessary divergence from the 150 or so minutes preceding. The new ending ruined the extended cut for me, so while worthy for interest's sake, the theatrical version is surely the authoritative one.
Scott, working with virtuoso cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac), creates an often hazy, desaturated tableau that neither glamorizes nor flinches. The low-light photography of these smoky locations was a challenge for the DVD version of the film, with digital artifacts and other telltale signs of excessive compression showing up in the black areas. This Blu-Ray disc, on the other hand, offers a subtle but significant improvement, with a pleasing film-like image and a thin sheen of grain. Details snap to attention, and colors -- while not popping out of the frame -- are lifelike and true. This is a great representation of the gritty theatrical experience of American Gangster.
At least equally improved is the audio, upgraded from relatively low-bitrate Dolby Digital on the DVD to expansive DTS-MA. In a side-by-side comparison, the DTS brings significantly more life to ambient sounds, like cameras clicking at the Ali fight, and lots of boom to the shotguns in the climactic takedown. The score comes across a wide soundstage with clarity and precision, mixing more naturally with the other soundtrack elements.
All of the special features from the three-disc special edition make an appearance here, including a low-key but engaging commentary with Scott and Zaillian. The two were recorded separately, so unfortunately there's no interplay between them, but both offer a great deal of insight into the development and creation of the film. Next are two deleted scenes, an alternate opening and more on Frank's wedding, neither of which would've added much to the finished product, and a comprehensive, nearly two-hour documentary on making the movie. The documentary, as those included on Scott's releases tend to be, is superb, with just enough fly-on-the-wall footage combined with interviews and demonstrations to cover the production from a multitude of angles. It's broken into several parts for those who don't have time to watch the whole thing in one shot, but I recommend one sitting. "Case Files" looks at a few scenes individually in-depth, showing Scott determining the most cinematic drug purity test to use and staging the shootout from late in the picture, as well as a phone conference between Scott and Zaillian. Finally, we get a couple of forgettable music videos, a featurette specifically on the hip-hop influence on the film (and the movie's affect on hip hop artists such as Jay-Z, who was inspired to write an album after watching an early cut), and a couple of segments from television specials. The BET Special is weak, adding little or no new information to the package, but the Dateline NBC segment has a few insightful moments, including Russell Crowe saying he would've liked to have starred in Malcolm X (!). All in all, an above-average feature set.
Some of the making-of material can be watched picture-in-picture during the extended cut of the film (not available on the theatrical), which is a pretty fun way to enjoy it -- seeing a scene being shot and the final product simultaneously should be a real draw for most film geeks.
American Gangster was among the best films of 2007, a year that was rather crowded with exceptional offerings. Strikingly photographed, with top-notch performances and a great soulful soundtrack, it's a movie Ridley Scott can call one of his best pictures with confidence. The Blu-ray offers significant picture and sound upgrades from the DVD, and all of the special features to boot. It's worth the upgrade.
Frank Lucas may be guilty, but American Gangster isn't.
Review content copyright © 2008 Daniel MacDonald; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* U-Control Picture in Picture (Unrated Cut)
* Commentary with Director Ridley Scott and Writer Steven Zaillian
* Deleted Scenes
* Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster
* Case Files
* Hip-Hop Infusion Featuring Common and T.I.
* The BET Special: The Making of American Gangster
* Dateline NBC: American Gangster First Look
* Music Videos
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site