Writer: Ezekiel Lee Zhiang YangWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
"Training Day", "Blow", "Scarface"
Make no mistake - the American Gangster in this movie is not Denzel Washington; it really ought to be the judges, crooked cops, politicians, jailhouse superintendents and 100,000 other lowlifes Russell Crowe's cop character Richie Roberts says is on the narcotics payroll in 70's Manhattan.
What can one expect out of this No.1 box office gangster movie? The first surprise is that "American Gangster" is beautifully contained for a mainstream mobster flick. It doesn't resort to the all-too-cool Denzel Washington one-liners we are used to; and even dares to put Russell "Gladiator" Crowe out as a fumbling loser who womanises and can't keep his family together.
The cinematic juxtaposition of Washington's Frank Lucas and Crowe's Richie Roberts is obvious - one straight-laced-but-otherwise-decadent cop against one disciplinarian family man heroin kingpin. Although reports have surfaced on the Net about how inaccurate these depictions are (from the horses' mouth of Lucas and Roberts themselves after viewing it when the movie premiered stateside last September) it is always a good idea to get the audience liking the bad guy and questioning how good the good guy actually is. Washington and Crowe both reportedly met their respective characters to learn their mannerisms and came away with a very entertaining portrayal of the two, accurate or otherwise.
Does Ridley Scott really have an ideological stand behind it? "American Gangster" has scenes from "Shaft" and music from "Jackie Brown", yet avoided the melodrama in "A Bronx Tale" and trash talking in "Training Day". Without even delving into the historical actualities of how Lucas apparently managed to smuggle dope through coffins of US soldiers returning from the Vietnam war, the movie feels very authentic, not only because of the attention to costume design and location, but because it refuses to shine the spotlight on any one character to carry the movie. It is a story-driven pitch that might disappoint the action-seeking portion of the audience.
Still, "American Gangster" boasts great performances from the heavyweight lead pair but also features wonderful bits with Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Love Actually"), Josh Brolin (the upcoming "No Country For Old Men"), Cuba Gooding, Jr. ("Jerry McGuire") and even Wu-Tang rapper RZA making up the spectrum of dodgy characters on both sides of the law who are waiting to pounce on dope money. However, just like how the gangsters in the film are always complaining that the heroin is cut, we are also going to complain that the movie is cut. Butchered no end for requisite gangster F-words, we also presumably miss out on many drug-processing scenes where women are employed to package the merchandise and are required to be naked so that no smuggling is possible. Annoying as this may be, this time due to the wonderful narration, the censoring is not fatal to the story.
With all the dope, guns and girls, "American Gangster" is unexpectedly more drama than action, despite how the title may sound. It is quite long, clocking in at two and a half hours - but feels rewarding enough to make it worth your while.
So what have we learned? That Crowe can look convincingly pathetic as a potbellied cop? Or that the duality of good and evil (especially in that "Godfather"-esque montage of Lucas cutting prime turkey at this White House home while junkies are dying elsewhere) in gangster movies are always crowd-pleasers?
The real-life, now-released Frank Lucas is reportedly making some side income from this movie, with video game instalments on the way, so I guess the message is constant - bad guys always win. Our one-up on them is that we can censor their swearing in Malaysian cinemas.Cinema Online, 23 September 2008