The Theory of Chaos

Friday, December 21, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - American Gangster

Full review behind the jump

American Gangster

: Ridley Scott
: Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson
: Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott
: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Hawkes, RZA, Yul Vazquez, Malcolm Goodwin, Ruby Dee, Carla Gugino, John Ortiz, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Armand Assante, Joe Morton, Richie Coster, Kevin Corrigan, Clarence Williams III

And no one even knew it was me. I was a shadow. A ghost . . . what we call down home a haint . . . That was me, the Haint of Harlem.
-Frank Lucas, from the New York Magazine article
The Return of Superfly

If actors have brands, Denzel Washington’s might be advertised as “Smooth Excellence”. He applies that quality fully to the character of Frank Lucas, who in 1970’s Harlem evolved beyond drug dealer to drug tycoon, in part because he understood the power of brands. Lucas is the central character of
American Gangster, a title so efficiently evocative that it is also a brand name, because it is not just Frank Lucas’s identity, it is his style. Maybe one reason the American cinema has always thrived on crime is that American criminals so consistently and fluidly react to the pulse of American capitalism. Once Frank Lucas decided that he was okay with heroin and murder, everything else was just good business.

The clash point of business and morals is the heart of Ridley Scott’s crime epic, which is the equal of many of the kingpins of crime cinema and one of the best pictures of 2007. It tells many stories under one big one; it is about the heroin trade, but also about corruption, and race, and family, and Vietnam, and the price of honesty. And it is even about fashion; because if Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is to be believed, who knows how long Frank Lucas might have stayed on top for if it hadn’t been for one fur coat?

That coat, a chinchilla with matching hat, was a present from his wife (Lymari Nadal). He shows up at a Muhammad Ali fight wearing it, and enjoying excellent seats, which prompts New Jersey Narcotics Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) to start wondering who this man is that gets better seats than the Mafia. He is the first to imagine his way through what has been Lucas’ best shield – peoples’ inability to think a black man could be at the top of any food chain.

A North Carolina-born street hustler who became the driver and confidant to legendary numbers runner “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), Lucas learned that handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving can be better protection than 100 guns, and that he will never truly control his destiny as long as he’s selling the same cut-down junk as everyone, and has to buy it from mobsters or crooked cops like everyone. Every step he takes, including a trek up-country through Vietnam to strike a direct deal with the poppy-growers, and an insidious method for bringing the drugs to America, makes perfect sense when you view it through that prism – he is doing what must be done to provide a better product at a lower price. Notice how he primarily uses economic muscle to stake out his turf, he knows that his extra-pure “Blue Magic” heroin is as inevitable as gravity if he just puts it out there for consumers to buy. He only gives in to anger when people deviate from the natural flow of the marketplace, like when his flashy rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) starts selling inferior product using the “Blue Magic” name. Always protect the brand.

Russell Crowe, too, has a brand, “Moldable Testosterone”, and his Roberts is a crusader of virile doggedness. He leads a shambles of a personal life, probably because he needs his full supply of virtue to get through the job. His refusal to take bribes isolates him from his fellow detectives, and his narcotics squad operates out of a warehouse with few resources and little guidance other than to figure out who the big players are and try to bust them. Struggling to connect the dots of an opaque picture, again and again we watch him walk into potentially-lethal situations armed only with nerve. Watch when he uses city money to set up a drug buy, promising to get it back, then watch as he sees who ends up with that money, and how perilous it makes the situation for him, but he goes and asks for it back anyway.

Ridley Scott is principally known as a visual stylist, and here gets superb work from cinematographer Harris Savides and production designer Arthur Max telling a big period story with a lot of locations. But he has a sneaky habit of filling his cast with well-disciplined actors and trusting them to do their job while he handles other details. Washington trusts this material and relaxes into it, his way of hiding venom with a charming smile, his unerring ability to dominate, they find as good a home here as any performance he has given. Crowe takes license from his Gladiator director to perfect his performance to the last detail. And watch how some performers get to just plain shine; like Josh Brolin, enjoying a renaissance this year both in No Country For Old Men and as a menacing crooked cop here, and the veteran Ruby Dee, playing Frank Lucas’ mother in a role that is brief in screen time but rich with dignified passion, and that cries out for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

What you’ll remember most about American Gangster is confidence. Frank Lucas has absolute confidence in his survival skills and his understanding of supply-and-demand. The filmmakers have the confidence not to go for flash, but to offer a restrained, almost stately delivery of a story that takes some time to tell. The volume of information they convey is nothing short of wizardly, but you never feel like you’re being force-fed. It’s kept alive and pushing ahead with pops of danger and intrigue, and this intoxicating flavor of a corruption that runs from the jungles to the streets. Ridley Scott and producer Brian Grazer know what product they’re selling, they have cooked it just as well as it can be cooked.


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