Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

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American Gangster

When I was in LA, C and I went and saw American Gangster at the Chinese Mann Theatre, simply to say we had seen a film there. It's a very ordinary cinema, honestly, but there are men and women outside it who stand round in superhero costumes so you can take photos of them, so long as you give a tip.

None of which has anything to do with the film.


In a quick sentence, you could describe American Gangster as ordinary film making: boring, bland, and without a touch of edge, a criticism that could be tossed at the majority of films that Ridley Scott has made. Worse, however, in this film he has even gone for an ending that includes post it note summaries to provide resolution that would, otherwise, have to have been put into the film. Imagine that, actual resolution in a film. Next you might want some acting from Denzel Washington. Maybe some stylist direction for Ridley Scott. Perhaps you'd like to wish upon a star for Scott's untimely death so that he doesn't make a bland, innocuous version of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Go on and wish for all those things. I'm on a tangent and need to get back to the way things work, so while you wish, I'll tell you the plot of this film. See, American Gangster, inspired by an article on underworld figure Frank Lucas, deals with the rise of the same underworld figure, a man who has learnt about community, who is ruthless, yet a business man, who uses the American military to smuggle pure and uncut heroin into the country so that he, in undercutting the prices of the less pure stuff, can make an empire. Opposed to him is honest cop Richie Roberts, who played by Russell Crowe, is in the middle of losing his son, sleeping with women, connected to underworld figures himself, and trying to become a lawyer. He also heads up the operation that eventually leads to Frank Lucas' capture which, in turns, leads to him using Lucas' information to ruin the careers of corrupt cops.

You might think that such pieces for a story would result in an interesting, morally grey film, in which the relationships of the characters with underworld figures, the military, and the neighbourhoods they profit from are explored, but no. Part of the problem is the script, I believe, simply because it refuses to touch upon these subjects (but then again, perhaps this is Scott's choice, as a script is only a blueprint). Instead, the film is focused, primarily, on creating a portrait of Frank Lucas, the ordinary, hard working, pragmatic, heroin king of the film, who, is in part these things because he is played by Denzel Washington, who, even when he sets a man alight in the start of the film, cannot be anything but the middle class black man that white people trust with their saving accounts. I can't, in recent memory, think of a roll in which Washington has been forced to leave that behind, and I think that now this essence in him has become so deeply ingrained that in every film he is in he brings with him that sense of while collar assurance, that promise to the audience that while they may indeed be watching a film about a violent underworld figure who shot men in the head on the street and in broad daylight, they will never really have to deal with that. All acts of violence will be done to people worse than he. People who deserve it. Junkies, pimps, corrupt cops, and so forth. Sure, Washington might play a man who smuggles drugs into the country in the coffins of dead American soldiers, but you can be assured, that in some way, his Frank Lucas will be no different than any aspiring Fortune 500 poster child trying to make his fortune, and that any moment of ruthlessness will be made sympathetic by those he performs it on.

Crowe's Roberts, the other half of the character study of the film, at least shows some potential at being an interesting character, in that his relationship with organised crime through his childhood creates an nice contradiction when he turns down the money he finds at the start of the film. Of course, the problem with this is that Scott does not spend any time building the groundwork for this event: you never truly experience the level of corruption in the Police that Crowe is against, you never understand why he's obsessed with becoming a lawyer, and why growing up around organised crime didn't put him on this path. No, rather, Crowe's character is simply the detective of the film, the man who will bring Lucas down, and then, with the aid of the man, remove the corrupt cops from the force. This lack of characterisation is so bad in Roberts that, when the post it note at the end informs the audience that he eventually became a lawyer for Lucas, I couldn't quite figure out why he would do this. There were the conversations about the victims of drug abuse. The images of Lucas shooting a man in the street. But apparently after a few weeks bringing down some corrupt cops, the heroin king and his cop turned lawyer saviour had put aside their differences, and were buddies. Or some such thing.

As a film, American Gangster is filled with endless character inconsistencies, of moments that don't quite meet up between each character, and while Crowe does his best to act his way through it with a womanising, honest cop who is struggling to keep his sense of self respect, Washington's performance of, well, Washington, is a huge hole within the film that all the bad characterisation and inconsistencies are drawn towards. Of course, if the film had been in the hands of a director who wasn't afraid to push the crime elements further, to make things darker and more complex, perhaps that would not have mattered...

Or, perhaps, you know, he would have picked a different cast.

Either way, American Gangster is the standard by the numbers, soft American crime film that will appeal to a lot of people, and with it's reassurance that bad men do good things, will be one that a lot of people like and award... and in the end, it will likely do so, and people all around the world will love it, and no one will seem to have noticed that Washington didn't act for one moment in the entire film, and the Scott gave us another bland, tofu tasting product. That's life when there are drugs in the water, I suppose.

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