Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.18: Ridley Scott's American Gangster

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 66 (B)

Grades don’t tell the whole story. Of the two “killer girl” movies I reviewed in the past couple years (Hannah, The Hunger Games), the latter is more successful at what it’s trying to do, but I’d recommend the former first because it’s more ambitious and more interesting, even if it doesn’t work as well as it should. I bring this up because while American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s well-liked 2007 crime drama, gets a “B” where, say, G.I. Jane got a “B-“, I’d recommend the latter first without missing a beat. Why? Because G.I. Jane, while marred with a ludicrous third act and a dumbass script, is more interesting on a directorial level and has striking sequences that are burned into my mind (plus you can just shut it off after the end of the second act). American Gangster, while perfectly solid, features little to distinguish itself from other gangster films.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is an enforcer for black crime lord “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III). When “Bumpy” dies of a heart attack and a bunch of flashy, sloppy gangsters come in, the strictly professional Frank takes over Harlem crime with a potent brand of heroin called Blue Magic. As Frank rises to become the biggest kingpin in New York, he gets in with mobster Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) and battles with corrupt cop Trupo (Josh Brolin). Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe in his third film with Scott) gains notoriety as an honest cop who’s tough on crime and corruption. Richie becomes the head of a new drug task force that will bring Frank down.

Scott assembles a hell of a cast: Brolin, on the way to a major comeback with the same year’s No Country for Old Men; veteran character actors like Ted Levine (as Richie’s superior), Assante; newer character actors like John Hawkes (as one of Richie’s partners) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Frank’s cousin); Ruby Dee (in her only Oscar-nominated performance) as Frank’s mother; Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a flashy gangster, and two Oscar-winning leads. Scott also has an Oscar-winning screenwriter like Steve Zaillian, whose research into the particulars of Harlem in the 70s feels extensive.

The problem is that American Gangster feels like every gangster movie ever made. The scenes where scrappy gangster Frank becomes the biggest and baddest guy around recalls Scarface. The “cool-headed leader” thing is straight out of The Godfather. The period detail, while strong, too often seems like it’s mimicking old Blaxploitation films like Superfly or Across 110th Street (the theme of which shows up, reminding us of its better use in Jackie Brown). Scott depictions of the ins and outs of the drug trade feels like Goodfellas, whereas the cops and criminals storyline recalls The Departed. It’s not that the film can’t borrow from other movies- it’s that it doesn’t do anything new with these tropes that’s ultimately frustrating.

Worse still, the cast, however strong, doesn’t get to do all that much. Ejiofor, Assante, Gooding, Hawkes, and Levine are all fairly wasted. Brolin is good, but he feels a bit like every dirty-cop ever. Dee is strong, but her Oscar-nomination feels more like an apology for ignoring her work in Do the Right Thing. Crowe is reliably solid, but he’s stuck with the hoariest cop-movie clichés in the world: dedicated cop can’t keep a marriage together, his partner dies from a drug overdose and he vows revenge, he’s so straight that he’s in danger, etc. It’s Serpico (with a dash of Donnie Brasco), but without Al Pacino’s immediacy or quiet desperation. It doesn’t help that Crowe played a cop before in L.A. Confidential (his best performance) and an honest man squeezed by corruption in The Insider. Bud White and Jeffrey Wigand are such memorable and fully-formed characters that Richie Roberts’ cop melodrama can’t help but seem a little familiar.

Scott’s work seems to have gone mostly into the production design (which is, admittedly, fantastic). American Gangster is well-crafted and has the same meticulous design of all Scott films, but the filmmaking feels strangely generic. There are a handful of solid set-pieces, but for the most part American Gangster feels like Scott making a gangster movie just because, well, he’s making a gangster movie. There aren’t any hypnotic shots or sequences in the old Ridley Scott style, and while his signature atmospheric lighting comes in at a few places, the film mostly feels frustratingly generic. It’s not that the film isn’t solid and perfectly entertaining. It’s that it’s workmanlike where even Scott’s biggest duds of the past (Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain, 1492, Hannibal) had moments of astonishing filmmaking that felt unique and fresh even where their scripts failed.

But, then again, a solid film is a solid film, and American Gangster has one element that does feel fresh: Denzel Washington. Washington has done too many lousy thrillers in the past decade, but he always brings gravitas and charisma to his role. Frank Lucas isn’t as memorable as his terrific bad-guy role in Training Day, but Washington’s stillness and control throughout the film makes him the one truly great element of the film (whenever Crowe comes up, you wish that Washington would come back). He’s a character who represents progress: money loss for the Italians and the dirty cops, the chance that black businessmen (what is a gangster but a capitalist at his most foul?) can take over the world. His relation to the film is similar to Jay-Z’s relation to his equally solid album inspired by the film (also called American Gangster): love the performer. The work around him? Eh, it’s alright.

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