Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Point/Counterpoint - American Gangster

Liz and I both saw American Gangster recently. Here's what we had to say about it:

Lora -
Monday was Veterans day and I thought, "What better way to celebrate all those who've served our country then by seeing a movie about a true veteran...of the streets!" So I saw
American Gangster. I remember seeing the movie poster for the first time and thinking it couldn't be bad if it tried...Denzel! Russell Crowe! Ridley Scott! and Jay-Z liked it so much he created a whole album about it! This is gonna be awesome...and it was.

American Gangster tells the true story of Frank Lucas, a hugely successful (if you will) heroin dealer/mob boss in 60's and 70's Harlem, and Rickey Roberts, the DEA cop investigating the area's drug trade. Denzel is, as always, phenomenal. Seriously, he is the perfect actor to play morally ambiguous characters. It's impossible not to like him even as he's raking in millions of dollars from crack heads and killing anyone who challenges his authority. And Russell Crowe is right on as the do-no-wrong cop in a city where 2/3 of the cops accept bribes from the mob. Set against the war in Vietnam,
American Gangster is a war of the streets...dirty cops and drug dealers, good cops and junkies all battle for control, most unsuccessfully.

My favorite scenes were the small moments...the moment when things begin to turn for Lucas because he loves his wife too much to disappoint her; when Roberts tells his boss America can't win the war on drugs because it would put hundreds of thousands of people out of work; when Lucas buys his poor mother a huge new house with furniture recreated from memory from his childhood. Sure, American Gangster is too long, but the performances and subtle emotional moments are worth checking out.

Liz -

American Gangster is a good movie. Its solid. I just didn't think it was great, and that's disappointing because when you've got a gangster movie starring Denzel Washington and Russel Crowe, directed by Ridley Scott, it should be great.

Oddly enough, it didn't feel that long to me, and in a weird way I kind of thought that was part of the problem. It felt like it skidded along too fast, categorizing Lucas' rise in a rapid succession of what almost felt like stock footage from every movie about success in America: the death of the teacher/father figure; the decision to go into drugs; raking in the cash; betrayal by family; the fall. There were a few great details along the way - one you mentioned was when he not only bought his mother a house but he had it filled with furniture that was an exact recreation of furniture they had when he was a kid but that got re-possessed. I feel like we needed more of that. One thing that stuck out in my mind for some reason was after the police raid his house and one of them smacks his wife (I hope I'm not giving too much of the movie away here. I don't think I am, another problem with it is you see these plot points coming a mile away), you hear all about how angry Lucas is going to be, and you assume he was. But it would have given his character and the movie on the whole a lot more depth if we could have seen that. Show us Frank coming home and finding his house torn up and his wife's face bruised.

Whenever I watch movies like this, I can't help but compare it to The Godfather. Maybe that's not fair, but I couldn't help but thinking of all those great moments in that film where a character changes before your eyes or the plot does something unexpected - Michael telling his brothers he wants to kill the The Turk, finding out that Carlo had Sonny set up to be killed, etc. American Gangster uses montages of junkies to show us what Lucas is really doing and cash machines counting stacks of ones to show us how successful he is. While it looks cool, it just doesn't give you the movie the same emotional impact.

Lora -
Interestingly, you are not the only person to think of
The Godfather. George F. Will of the Washington Post actually says American Gangster is a more realistic morality tale and "more mature" then The Godfather because Ridley Scott doesn't sentimentalize crime as Coppola does in his film. I don't know how much I agree with him, but it's an interesting perspective.

Anyone else care to weigh in?

1 comment:

Liz said...

Counter-counter-counter point: What does George Will know?

(Kidding, of course)