Damn, It Feels Ambivalent to Be a Gangsta
American Gangster / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | November 4, 2007 | Comments ()
Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is great at living in the tension between what it needs to be and what it’s too lazy not to become. It’s a powerfully American film, in everything from storytelling to mindset, and that tone of hypocrisy- but-somehow- not runs through every sweaty, glistening frame: The film wants to be a taut modern mob story but winds up getting bogged down in personal subplots that don’t pan out; it decries violence as horrible even as it gets off on the kinetic jolt of it all; it’s big and strong, but also occasionally meandering and weak. For Scott, this isn’t entirely surprising. His c.v. includes some genuine classics, but since finding a low-level muse in Russell Crowe, Scott has contented himself with making forgettable dramas — Black Hawk Down, A Good Year — that capitalize on his name and then coast on the brand recognition without actually plumbing the emotional and intellectual depths that has give some of his older films such staying power. The duality of the American spirit and the clichéd American Dream are what make American Gangster so compelling, even as it staggers occasionally: Its reach exceeds its grasp, but it never lets the fear of failure (or actual failure) stop it from trying to become something bigger and better. And every now and then, it succeeds.
The film begins with an explosive start, bottling lightning for a few jaw-dropping seconds as Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a driver and enforcer for Harlem gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III) in 1968, stands in front of a man tied to a chair, douses him with gasoline, and calmly flicks a cigar at him, listening to the man’s screams of agony for a few moments before drawing a gun and emptying a few rounds into the thug’s head and chest. It’s unsettling, and uncompromising, and promises that Scott is out to grab your lapel and shake the life from you like he hasn’t since Alien. And for a few minutes, he does. Bumpy’s death opens up the streets to chaos, with all kinds of wannabe kingpins staking their claim on Harlem and threatening what Frank already feels is a dying way of life. Bumpy had moaned that the neighborhood’s mom and pop stores had been replaced by corporations with no personal connection to their customers, and it’s that perverted sense of serving the community while really raping it that Frank has taken to heart.
While Frank attempts to keep his local rackets going, Scott shifts between the criminals and the cops, following Richie Roberts (Crowe), a New Jersey detective working to stem the flow of dope on the streets. Richie is another of the film’s myriad studies in contradictions, a take-charge cop who quivers when he has to present a legal brief at night school, and Crowe plays him with the wonderfully shaky angst he showed in The Insider. Richie is unwilling to take any dirty money, going so far as to turn in $1 million in unmarked bills that he discovers with his partner. But it’s in Richie’s half of the story that Scott often loses sight of his goal and gets a little lost in the weeds, detailing a few busts Richie makes with his partner and Richie’s dissolving marriage in an attempt to give the story scope. However, most of it feels like too much effort with not enough payoff, especially saddling Richie with divorce proceedings and a custody battle that never stick around long enough to affect the character and merely feel like the kind of easy shorthand used to flesh out cops in movies. Of course Richie is married to his job, involved with a string of meaningless girlfriends. Showing this once makes it real; dwelling on it means it had better matter in the long run, but it doesn’t.
The film’s real strengths lie in the way it charts the rise and fall of Frank and Richie side by side, as they fight for what the believe to be right while worrying about just how many times they can sell a piece of their souls before there’s nothing left. Frank builds a heroin empire by actually journeying to Southeast Asia, meeting up with a cousin in the Army who’s stationed in Vietnam and then trekking into the jungle to deal directly with the opium supplier. I won’t give away how Frank actually ships the drugs into the States, except to say that only a hardened criminal could really take advantage of the Vietnam war so casually. But that’s Frank’s entire problem. He wants the American Dream, but no one ever really admits that that dream is inherently criminal to a certain degree, involving wealth easily gained and a life of consequence that somehow arrives with no effort. Frank is a ruthless villain, chasing his twisted version of a national birthright and convinced that doing things like passing out turkeys at Christmas somehow forgives, or at least nullifies, the fact that he’s also flooding the streets of his own beloved borough with heroin that’s recruiting new junkies daily, leaving kids without parents, and instigating brawls between the Italian crime families and the black gangs warring for New York. Scott has the unflinching skill to show all this, but it never quite amounts to a condemnation. Scott’s not exactly making Frank out to be the local hero that some considered him to be, but neither is he judging him; rather, he seems to be pointing a finger at The System, as Frank is wont to do, blaming it for everything that’s wrong and letting that anger override any rational thoughts of an objective right and wrong. Because Christmas turkeys or no, drug kingpins aren’t model citizens.
Still, Washington and Crowe are damn near electric at times, holding together the sprawling story with the sheer force of their collective will. Washington is at his best when he’s calm, only occasionally allowing his icy anger to warm up enough for him to shout; even when he (for instance) pulls a gun from his waistband and shoots a man in the face in the middle of the street one morning, there’s an erudite boredom about it, as if this is just something he needs to go to get where he feels he has to go. He’s evil, but so damn cool about it that you can see why Scott is hesitant to brand him a villain. Crowe is solid as well, so workmanlike and unwilling to showboat that it’d be easy to dismiss his performance as rote. But he’s fantastic at creating empathy for what could have been just another two-dimensional cop.
Ultimately, American Gangster is entertaining but overlong; smart and nuanced, but also a little clunky, and afraid of making a stand. The weirdest part is how Scott never makes any kind of commentary on how law enforcement, including Richie and his fellow detectives, isn’t directly interested in getting bad guys off the streets, but in cutting them deals and milking them for info. This is how it’s done, and this is how it has to be done, but not even the straight-laced Richie seems too torn up about it. His ex rails at him, “You think you’re going to heaven because you’re honest, but you’re not. You’re going to the same hell as the crooked cops you can’t stand.” But if her argument hits home with Richie, it would be lost on Scott. Its title notwithstanding, American Gangster is perfectly at home pretending that crime pays. The American dream lives on.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.