Friday, November 9, 2007

American Gangster: Epic Tedium


American Gangster promises much from the advertising, highlighting to live-wire Oscar winners in the form of Denzel Washington and Russell crow as , respectively, a powerful Harlem based crime lord and an honest cop heading a narcotics investigation that eventually brings him to trial. Directed by Ridley Scott, this should have been a sure thing, but the lesson behind items bandied as safe bet is that they go sour more often than we wish.

Scott is, at times, a brilliant stylist who can set a mood, get atmosphere and move action and drama along concurrently, as is the case in his masterworks Blade Runner, The Duelist, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. The balance between the oddly composed frame, the baroque design and the character driven plots ( Black Hawk Down, though, being more about combat protocol than personal demons) made for what is now a rare thing in the industry, a well made Hollywood entertainment. He's never met a skewed color scheme or illogical edit he wasn't taken with, a fact that makes more than a few of his movies as if they're in competition with brother Tony Scott. Ridley Scott often gets as agitated and formula-glutted and offers up patented bits of nonsense like Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven, generic equivications of style employing an excess of trendy edits ,gauche camera filters that came to nothing at all except a noisy journey to forgone plot resolutions. American Gangster is somewhere between these virtues and vices, and it is to be commended that Scott has calmed his camera hand and offered up the wonderfully grit-textured scenery of a Seventies-era New York with a minimum of gratuitous flair.

The plot, though, is something pieced together from a half dozen crime dramas one could name, the most obvious being the face to face meeting between Washington's and Russell's crook and cop characters , where opposing world views are exchanged: the nod to Pacino and DeNiro in Heat is glaring, obvious as a zit. Scott also takes his time developing the story lines of the crime boss and the cop to where the eventually meet and lock horns, in between being the standard troubled marriages, drug addictions, mob hits, all proceeding at a snail's pace. Add to this drawn out build up the fact of Denzel Washington's persistent monotone and we have a collection of tics and quirks passed off as style. Russell Crow again manages to barely hide his Australian drawl and underplays his part as the dutiful and shambling cop, more cipher than character. Both characters are more stereotypes for the writers to hang their refurbished cliches on. All the same, this seems old, contrived, pieced together by the numbers, and the assurance that this film is based on a true story doesn't mask the feeling of having seen all this before, nor can it make for the lack of dramatic tension. It's a paycheck, not a testement.

Slowness is not a sin, of course, but there is the occasional mistake by good directors and their script writers who think slack momentum equals literary acumen, something this film maker obviously coveted.

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