Universal // 2007 // 158 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // February 19th, 2008
"The man I worked for had one of the biggest companies in New York City. He didn't own his own company. White man owned it, so they owned him. Nobody owns me, though."
The publicity leading up to the release of American Gangster was simple and straightforward: black-and-white pictures of Oscar winners Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man) and Denzel Washington (Training Day) on separate posters promoting the release of the film. The film came out, had a lot of people praising it, and, surprisingly, a large audience as well, garnering $130 million for a drug-soaked '70s cops-and-robbers film. So now that it's out on HD DVD, what's it like upon further review?
Written by Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York) and directed by Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven), the film is inspired by the events surrounding the rise of Frank Lucas (Washington) in the New York drug dealing business in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lucas was the assistant to the previous drug lord, and his rise to the top was an understated one. He made the decision of going to Vietnam and having heroin smuggled out in U.S. Army soldiers' caskets, bold for the tactic itself, but it also eliminated the possibility of having to deal with a middleman (or the rival Italians) in the process. Although his rise to success was quiet, Frank, who served as muscle for his old boss, doesn't hesitate to use violent means when necessary, killing a rival boss in broad daylight on a busy street corner. His prominence ironically puts him on the radar of the New York Police Narcotics Bureau and their Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe). Roberts' findings leave the police brass stupefied that someone who's not Italian had become the principal drug boss in the city, while crooked detectives like one named Trupo (Josh Brolin, In the Valley of Elah) don't really care, and in fact try to shake down Lucas for anything they can get. The film follows Richie as he tries to make a case against Frank, while Frank's rise -- and fall -- are shown for the world to see.
I remember going to see American Gangster on opening weekend at 9:30 in the morning; my wife and I were surprised to see that there were more than a couple of people in the house, so to speak. For what it's worth, I feel that what's promising about the box-office success of American Gangster is that grownups can actually have a box-office impact on things; when a story is told rather well, and features a lot of recognizable names and capable performances from those names, people are going to flock to it.
And those recognizable names provide performances that are certainly different than in previous roles. As Lucas, Washington is less abrasive than Alonzo in Training Day, but he's certainly no less cold-blooded. He turns on his violent side like you would turn on a light switch, killing people without second thought, but yet he holds a charisma over Harlem, giving out turkeys at Thanksgiving, buying his mother (played by Ruby Dee) a house to set her up in, and he has a desire to take on a beautiful trophy wife. As the film's events unfold, you experience his downfall as well. His relationships with his wife Eva and his mother become strained, and family members like Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Talk To Me), who Frank brought in from the South to be near him and help run his business, start to wonder if he's lost it as the law enforcement noose starts to tighten. Washington's work in the film is worthy of the praise. On the other side, Crowe's role shows him packing on about twenty pounds. In his quest to be bigger, his character is smaller and soft-spoken, but that doesn't mean he isn't determined, and Crowe seems to capture that determination rather well. He's played a wide variety of characters in the last seven or eight years, and this proves to be another notch on his belt.
Allow me to vent for a second about the extras on this combo disc. You've got the rated and unrated versions of the disc within this set, sure, but when it comes to the extras, past the commentary there's only two extras to speak of, and many of the extras on either the two- or three-disc standard definition releases are eschewed. In between this and Knocked Up, which also had rated and unrated versions and left out some extras, Universal continues to show how backwards they've been in releasing high definition content to the world. I'm glad that this format war is pretty much done now, and Universal should take their piece of humble pie and come to where the flavor is now.
Stepping off the soapbox now...
The extras start with a commentary by Scott and Zaillian. Recorded separately, the pair discusses getting the story to film, while Scott focuses more on the production aspect than anything else. Sometimes both parties tend to stray from the topic at hand, but the information in the track is worth sticking around for. I've always found Scott to sound a little like Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels and thus, a little like Dr. Evil, but he does what he can on the commentary. Considering that Crowe works with him so much, you'd figure he'd want to join in on a track, but I digress. A small five-minute interview segment with Washington and Crowe follows, along with seven deleted scenes that run about twelve minutes and are skippable. The "U-Control" Picture-in-Picture function by Universal does include some additional on-set footage that you don't get on this disc (but presumably on the other standard def editions), but it's by no means educational or compelling.
To add to the disappointment, this HD DVD lacks a TrueHD soundtrack, and the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 soundtrack is solid, but not a standout effort. Most everything occurs in the front channels without any real surround activity, directional effects or low end fidelity, though everything does sound crystal clear. The VC-1 encoded 1.85:1 widescreen version of the film is a bit of a surprise, as Scott had seemed to shoot a lot of recent features in the Scope ratio of 2.35:1. I imagine he does this to eschew visual aesthetic for something grittier in nature. The look of the high def version is good, but isn't too much of an upgrade compared to the standard definition version. Because of the edge of the material, there's not a lot of shot depth to marvel over, even if the image is sharp for the most part. I wouldn't necessarily call this a reference disc, but it certainly looks decent.
Rated or unrated, the film's length has been a near-unanimous sore point from people who want to fully endorse American Gangster. Is it long? Well, yeah, there's probably about a half hour that could have been trimmed and still left an entertaining film. But remember, the reason for the length is twofold; it's to show the plot arcs of the main characters, and to help reinforce just how long Lucas had a hold on the New York drug trade and how much it gripped those who were addicts. Scott certainly doesn't flinch or apologize for it, so while you might not like the length, it should, at least, be respected (Michael Scott fans, be quiet!).
When the format war makes me want to recommend a standard definition, day and date release over its high definition counterpart, I've pretty much seen everything. But the fact is that the technical qualities aren't particularly exemplary and the differences aren't too noticeable from the standard definition edition. The supplements barely exist, while on the standard definition versions there are enough to choke a growing crackhead. You can get more for your money with those editions, so pass on this thing.
The filmmakers are acquitted for their work in the film, but Universal, guilty of laying a wet fart on the high definition consumer, is sentenced to write "I will never prolong a video format war again" 1,000 times, or until their hands fall off, whichever comes later.
Review content copyright © 2008 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Unrated Extended Edition
* Commentary with Director Ridley Scott and Writer Steven Zaillian
* Deleted Scenes
* "The Real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts"
* U-Control Picture-in-Picture
* Web Enabled Features
* Official Site