I had qualms with American Gangster when it first came out in theaters. I wasn’t able to take it seriously with the undeserved “Oscar buzz” surrounding it. I thought the ending was tacked on and trite and thought all comparisons to The Godfather and The French Connection were ill-advised. To me, American Gangster seemed like it could be this year’s Departed, but without the swagger and panache. It was more akin to Heat than to The Godfather, or maybe a better example is Scarface.
Then I realized I was treating the movie a little unfairly. I was maybe influenced in my original review by all the comparisons that were being made, when I should’ve just instead judged the movie on its own merit. I felt like American Gangster needed a 2nd chance.
Luckily, Neil Miller contacted me and asked if I’d like to review this week’s DVD release with 18 minutes of previously unreleased footage. “Yes,” I told Neil, “Send me that motherfucker.”
American Gangster is, at the very least, an enjoyable movie. It’s highly stylized and moves at a reasonably fast pace. I think that the way the two stories are interweaved—those being the stories of Frank Lucas’ (Denzel Washington) rise to power in the New York city drug racket and honest cop Richie Roberts’ (Russell Crowe) crackdown on dealing after the death of his partner—are handled very well. The two storylines come together eventually and Ridley Scott does a good job of building each arch responsibly. He also manages to throw in some stark, ruthless violence, a little bit of sex, and a whole lot of inner-city politics to keep viewers entertained.
Along for the ride is Josh Brolin as a corrupt cop and Ted “It-Rubs-the-Lotion-on-Its-Skin” Levine as the detective in charge of Richie’s sting operation. These two appear to be having a good time with their roles and that’s nice to see. I recommend American Gangster as long as you don’t take it too seriously.
At its heart, American Gangster is a crime drama with not much to say. However, what’s even more telling is that when it tries to say something, it inevitably fails. Take for instance the film’s new ending (which I won’t spoil here). The ending is trying to be profound and say something about modern culture, but it’s just not compelling. The ending is bloated and annoyingly self-aware, and as much as I hated the original ending, they managed to make it even worse be extending it.
That’s not to say all the added footage is bad. Some scenes, particularly flashbacks between Frank and Bumpy (Clarence Williams III), add more depth to Frank’s character and give you a sense for how he became a great drug dealer/businessman. It enhances pseudo-ridiculous scenes like the one when Frank confronts fellow dealer Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr) about copyright infringement.
Overall, I give Ridley Scott credit for making a three hour film move fluidly, because he and editor Pietro Scalia did a nice job with that. Additionally, this two-disc set contains both the theatrical version and the extended version and an entire disc of special features. The documentary “Fallen Empire” is a treat. Here (in “Part I: Tru Blu”) you get to meet the real Frank and Richie and hear some of the stories in the film as they actually happened. You also get little bits of trivia about the two of them. There’s also a nice segment about how Scott, Brian Grazer, and crew made a life-like boxing match for the Ali-Frazier scene. What’s impressive is that they utilized 1,500 mannequins in the arena for this scene. So not only were they meticulous in how they shot the scene, making it believable, but they spent a lot of time on a scene that doesn’t even make up 1/50th of the runtime.
Mostly, though, it’s nice to hear that American Gangster, an old-fashioned crime drama, used old-fashioned movie-making techniques and didn’t succumb to computer graphics when it might’ve made more sense for them to do so. For that, sir, I tip my hat.