Film of the week ----- American Gangster (Ridley Scott):
Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr, Josh Brolin.
Running time: 158 minutes . . .
THE year is 1968, the place Harlem, New York. Vietnam is sinking America. The civil rights movement hangs heavy in the air, but white man still keeps the black man down. If you are an intelligent, bespoke black man like Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), your career opportunities point one way: to crime. He is a driver and money collector for a powerful black gangster. When his boss dies suddenly, Frank sees a chance to move in. He has to deal with the superflys who want his turf, and then the mafia.
And if things are not bad enough, the police department is so crooked it wants to charge him admission to sell drugs on its turf. But Frank is smart. He flies to Vietnam, and arranges for a shipment of the purest heroin ever seen in New York. He sneaks it home on American military planes. He calls it Blue Magic and floods the town with it, superstrong and super-cheap. He gives it the respect of a brand. The former driver turned kingpin has the mafia in his pocket, and he tells the police to back off. Now that's black power.
Into the fray steps Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts, a New Jersey detective. He wears a Hawaiian shirt tucked into his jeans. He is so straight, he uncovers a million dollars in unmarked bank notes and hands them in.
The police force, two-thirds bent, is stunned. He studies law at night. He just might be Serpico all over again. But where Al Pacino's honest cop was shored up by a brooding pensiveness, Russell Crowe's clean conscience comes with a taste for womanising and a penchant for bashing heads while serving warrants. So, vintage Crowe all the way then.
This is the background to Ridley Scott's American Gangster, a period film based on true events that is so meticulously crafted, its New York looks and feels as authentic as the one we know from The French Connection. And that was made in 1971. As you would expect from Scott, the film is always entertaining. We watch Frank build his empire, and Richie build a team of clean cops to take him down. At just over two-and-a-half-hours long, it whistles by in a series of assassinations and arrests; a mounting clash of nemeses.
Some critics have compared it to The Godfather, confusing its epic length for epic scope. And I think Scott wants us to think of it as his masterpiece too. But the more I saw of it, the more I could not help but compare it to the work of a Coppolla or a Scorsese, and to see just how far this film falls short. Ridley Scott might be a visual perfectionist, but American Gangster shows him up, not just as a poor handler of character and life, but also for the emptiness of his gestures. He wants to cram the edges of his picture with detail. But he squeezes life out of it too.
You can always judge a good gangster film by the company that it keeps: think of Sonny and Fredo Corleone's peccadillos in The Godfather, or Joe Peschi's Tommy in Goodfellas. Look back further to Howard Hawks's pioneering Scarface in 1932, and the secretary Angelo who can't hold a pencil and answer a phone at the same time. Flesh and blood arouse our sympathy and add vibrancy to a picture. Here, Frank has five brothers, one of whom is played by the usually excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor, yet the story has no interest in them.
They are empty personalities.
Frank has come to rule New York surrounded by a loyal band of plyboard and it doesn't help that Denzel Washington takes the role too seriously to the point of being utterly charmless. It drains the film of charisma.
Indeed, there are moments that mirror The Godfather. Frank walks up to a man he has to kill, and doesn't think about the act;
later, he goes to church, and when he comes out, his empire has come apart.
In The Godfather, Al Pacino's Michael Corleone was a bag of nerves: the killing he had to do did not just move the plot, but it transformed irrevocably his character. When Coppola walks him into a church, it is to demonstrate how ruthless he has become, because outside Michael has arranged to have his enemies assassinated.
Here, these scenes are perfunctory but empty. They signify nothing but action in itself; we learn little about character. And that has always been the problem of Ridley Scott and it is what is wrong with American Gangster: great films tell us about life; Scott prefers for life not to be let in on the action.