Ridley Scott is a master of tone and atmosphere. Remember Alien and Blade Runner? In each he’s able to capture a future that we somehow relate to, even though I can’t imagine flying state size space ships to other planets, much less cars through a cityscape in my life time. In his newest film American Gangster his skill as a filmmaker brings to life an era that I missed entirely with an eye that no director has used before. Most films glorify certain eras, making them more beautiful perhaps than they actually were. One such film is Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, which I found more rom-comish than a real look at the music scene from the early 70’s. Hollywood distills through the eyes of a frosty lens or soft light, Scott however keeps it dirty, grungy and filthy. So this is what they mean when they say New York City didn’t always used to be as pretty or safe as it is now! I felt a true sense of danger while watching the story of Frank Lucas unfold before me. Denzel Washington is a calm fire as Lucas, the biggest drug runner of Heroine in the era of Vietnam. He’s a man no person should like, but he’s smarter than most everyone else and most of all, he’s patient. We respect him even when he brings his oblivious but decent family members into his drug trade. When one member of his family decides to put aside his potential for a note worthy career to become like Frank, we shake our heads in dismay, because not even Frank can see his potential down fall, and the damage it will cause his family and that is his flaw, pride. While he barks at others for vainly wearing their flashy clothes because that’s who the cops will pick out first, the pride that lingers inside begins to twist into a darker vanity. I could easily draw parallels of Lucas’ downfall to Scorcese and De Niro giving life to Jake La Motta’s downfall. He no longer sees his own family as people he should take care of, he no longer see his own flaws, he can no longer better himself. He doesn’t see himself as a person who needs to better himself, because he’s successful.
On the other hand we have Russel Crowe, playing one of the only honest cops in the system, Detective Richie Roberts. Robert’s life is falling apart. While he’s an honest cop, he’s not an honest husband, and he’s a worse father. But he’s trying with details that only Steven Zaillain would feel necessary to write into the script, and thank God for that. Crowe plays Roberts as a man who can only keep himself going as an honest cop, it’s the only part of his soul perhaps still intact, the only part not dirtied, so he holds to it, even when it means putting himself and potentially his career under life threatening circumstances. He’s driven, just as driven as Frank, but not through a selfish desire to better his own world, but to better the world around him and himself. He’s a broken man, but determined, and Crowe as he always does, disappears into his role making him one of the most profound anti-heroes this year. We see as the movie continues the difference between bettering oneself as a person and losing oneself as a person to their self made success.
The differences in these men make Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts formidable opponents, even though they don’t meet for most of the movie, but when they do the screen pops as these two actors bring these two personalities head to head, and we see that perhaps they aren’t as different as we thought.
For a film that’s two and a half hours long not a moment, image or line of dialogue is wasted. But it’s Scott’s visual storytelling that makes it that much more effective. The streets that Det. Roberts has to deal with are filled with salivating druggie cops and skid row victims all affected by the drug Lucas allows them to get their hands on so easily , while Lucas deals with sports stars, Miss Puerto Rico and glitzy night clubs. The contrast between the harsh white light on the streets and rich blacks and golds in the clubs strongly delineates the two worlds. Scott, through strong visual storytelling and incredible choices of music, is able to set the scene within seconds of their openings. We know where we are, what time of year it is, what era it is, what’s happening in the scene, and snap, we move on.
With what most director’s would have over relied on for drama. Scott saves the images of druggies dying by Lucas’ empire, perfectly timing these moments so that they not only show us how devastating heroine can be, but how apathetic Lucas is to all of it.
This is an epic movie on the streets of New York City. Brilliant performances by it’s leads and a great supporting cast including Josh Brolin as a bad cop and Lucas’ mother as played by Ruby Dee who in her 10 minutes of screen time gives us one of the most memorable moments of the movie, gives us a whole like few movies have given this year. But for Lucas anyway, this movie ends with a whimper, as one of the most powerful shots, visually and musically completes the film.
My only two complaints, which hardly ruins the movie. Length: I remember a time when director’s could turn in a movie this good under 2 and a half hours, but I guess if Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai can be as long as it is, so can this. The other is Cuba Gooding Junior who wears all of his emotions on his face as if he were trying to blow up the camera. I wonder why director’s don’t tell him to internalize it a little more. Maybe they type cast him to play the over-the-top bulls, but it’s still distracting to see Washington with his internal demeanor next to the most expressive face since the silent era (in a bad way.) Even if he were to tone it down a little, he’d still be over-the-top and tolerable.