'American Gangster'

Ridley Scott's latest could use more tough love.

By Steve Burgess 2 Nov 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Washington and Crowe: familiar.

Director Ridley Scott is a real hit-and-miss guy. A resume that includes Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down, and 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator guarantees he could quit tomorrow with his place in modern film history assured. But he's not quitting. In fact he's become as regular as William Shatner on All Bran, turning out a film a year. In 2006 it was Russell Crowe in A Good Year. This year it's American Gangster starring Crowe and Denzel Washington. Which should make 2007 a better year. But for Scott, it won't be 2000 again, either.

American Gangster tells the true story of Frank Lucas (Washington), a 1970s-era Harlem drug lord whose rise suggests what Al Pacino's Tony Montana might have been if Tony had kept his head down and his nose out of the merchandise. Crowe plays cop-turned-prosecutor Richie Roberts, a man whose defining moment comes when he and his partner find a million dollars worth of unmarked payoff money in car trunk -- and turn it in.

The act has consequences for both Roberts and his partner, few of them positive.

Now we're in different Al Pacino territory -- in the totally corrupt New York police culture of the time, Roberts learns the Frank Serpico lesson about how cops treat a blue snitch. While not shot in the face like Serpico, Roberts is soon persona non grata around the station and ends up at home bench-pressing his days away while experiencing the domestic trouble that always seems to afflict hard-nosed, tightly-wound movie cops.

Dress for success

Redemption comes via a task force set up to chase Lucas. After taking over from his beloved boss, Lucas has done extremely well by going straight to Southeast Asia and becoming a different sort of war profiteer, using the resources of the U.S. military to ferry pure heroin stateside. Soon he's running the streets while staying out of sight -- at least until his lovely Puerto Rican wife buys him a pimp-worthy fur coat and matching hat to wear to the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. Frank lives to regret his spouse's abysmal taste when his profile suddenly soars. Cops, both good and bad, are suddenly on his trail. As Detective Trupo, Josh Brolin follows last year's performance in Planet Terror with another menacing turn. Brolin really does slimy.

When you hire Crowe and Washington you are well advised to ride them, and American Gangster does. The movie spends a little too much time showing Washington as the family man who loves his Mama (Ruby Dee), giving just the occasional obligatory nod to the consequences of his work. Among those consequences: the corruption of family members eager to get in on the action. One nephew neglects a promising shot at a major league baseball pitching career to become a drug flunky (a very bad choice for sure, but still not as bad as Boston Red Sox hurler Curt Schilling's decision to stump for President George Bush in 2004).

Good cop, bad cops

American Gangster eventually delivers a different payoff than the straightforward Untouchables plotline of incorruptible-cop-nabs-gangster. An astonishing final summation reveals that three fourths of the Drug Enforcement Agency would be convicted of corruption as a result of the Lucas case. (Considering the Serpico story, moviegoers must wonder how many times corrupt New York cops had to get busted back in the day.)

That statistic reveals American Gangster has an important story to tell. Problem is, for most of its rambling two-and-half-hour length American Gangster doesn't really focus on that story, concentrating instead on Denzel Washington the good-looking hood, and Russell Crowe, the honest, edgy cop. American Gangster is too long. It shoots for epic status but the movie is too clinical, its characters not really memorable enough. We've seen these types before.

2007's Ridley Scott is a more restrained filmmaker than earlier models (American Gangster has only one strobe-lit scene). But a little more tough love this time out could have cut American Gangster down to the two-hour mark and probably pepped it up some. American Gangster is no A Good Year, ensuring that 2007 won't be terrible for Ridley Scott. But as the Chicago Cubs always say, there's always next year.

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