Lowdown: Heat 2.
The film American Gangster is a collaboration between three of my most appreciated cinema personas, director Ridley Scott with actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. With such an alliance you could say I’ve had high hopes; I can report, however, that after watching American Gangster I was mildly disappointed.
In what feels like a remake of Heat, AG pits Washington and Crowe on opposite ends of the law but hints at the great similarities between them and the vast grayness that lies between good and bad.
Supposedly based on real events, AG takes place during the sixties/seventies in New York. Washington plays the driver of the old black gangster boss of Harlem for whom he does the dirty work. That is, not just driving but killing and other things mob people do with their lives. The old master dies, though, and Washington quickly implements what he has learnt by organizing his own gang. He imports huge amount of very pure drugs from Vietnam while utilizing American soldiers and sells them at half the price the other gangs do. Quickly enough he becomes a rich and powerful man but Washington does not forget his roots and takes care of his family while being this ruthless old world conservative morals guy.
In contrast we have Russell Crowe, a policeman so dedicated to his job that in a background of a mostly corrupt police force he hands a million dollars he finds in a criminals’ car as evidence. Crowe is a recent divorcee with not much money, a son, dubious morals when it comes to the ladies, some criminal friends – but also a sense of justice that prevents him from doing anything against the law and puts him on a mission to fix this world of its bigger drug problems.
And thus Washington and Crowe’s paths are set to collide.
Look and feel wise, there can be no doubt AG is a Ridley Scott film. The settings, the backgrounds, the editing, the camera movement – all smell heavily of the Blade Runner spice. On its own that’s good; I think Blade Runner is a smashing film. Yet there are enough issues with the Ridley Scott implementation of AG to make it a bit of a dud.
For a start, there is a lot of confusion throughout the film. It’s always a case of “what did he do there”, “what did he say”, “who is this guy” etc. The viewer is intentionally left with no answers until very late into the film when Crowe explains things for us in a monolog that would befit the theatrical release of Blade Runner but which Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut did well to dispense of. On one hand this uncertainty keeps you on your toes, on the other it’s quite annoying: you never know whether you should have realized what’s going on or whether it is this intentional strategy of ambiguity again.
I have often asked myself whether I would have liked Blade Runner as much as I do if I was to watch the Director’s Cut before the theatrical release. The reason for this deliberation is that while obviously a better film, the Director’s Cut is much more ambiguous due to the lack of explanatory monologs. Having watched the theatrical version first I have had the benefit of knowing what was going on in the Director’s Cut regardless of its ambiguity. But back to the subject at hand, American Gangster seems to have given me an answer to my Blade Runner question, and it’s not the answer I would have liked to hear.
Ambiguity is not the only problem with AG. Despite its solid performances, 150 minutes of American gangsters and problematic policemen proved to be a bit too much for me. You want to know what is to happen, but there is no denying I checked the time more than a couple of times while watching AG. It tries to be meticulous in its character development but it ends up being a bit too boring for its own good.
Can’t believe it scene: When, at last, Washington and Crowe share the same shot, more than two hours into the film, all you get is a hand gesture before the fadeout. One sorts of expects more. For the record, there is more; in the tradition of Heat it’s not much more, though.
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars. Undoubtedly, American Gangster is a good film. It’s just not a film I have particularly enjoyed watching.