Thursday, September 20, 2007

American Gangster

Expect only minor spoilers in this review. Indeed, you can expect me to dance around a few plot points that have been made public knowledge in a lot of discussion of the film so far. I think you're better off not knowing some of those things before the film gets around to telling you them itself.

Michael Mann's Heat famously culminates in the first onscreen pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, presented as a larger than life cop and a robber duo coming together for a cup of coffee and a chat. It's tempting to see a climactic scene in American Gangster as tipping a wink to this once-historic meeting of method masters but, not to spoil anything, it certainly doesn't take place in a stylised diner and, to be honest, I doubt the combination of Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington will generate anything like the same amount of buzz. As the reviews start coming in, however, I expect this to be just one point of comparison between the two films even while, in actuality, they are worlds apart in execution, and therefore effect.

Bookended between 'Based on a True Story' and 'what happened next' title cards, American Gangster is, at the very least, plausibly realistic - sufficiently so that the minor issues of actual realism and minute historical accuracy can be easily discounted without investigation. It tells twin stories, the two threads that come together for something like the Heat moment, of Frank Lucas, the title character as played by Washington, and the cop Richie Roberts, played by Crowe, who ultimately ends up on his case. Before these stories entwine closely, however, they wind away separately - Frank climbing the ranks of Harlem drug dealers and, accordingly, celebrity night club empresarios; Richie going through a divorce and becoming a pariah amongst the bent coppers on the force through his incorruptibility. Thankfully, there's sufficient narrative drive and incident in the long stretch before the ultimate collision between Frank and Richie is inevitable, that nothing much feels wasteful or needlessly expositional, and the film never depends on jaded generic familiarity to tell us 'It's okay, this is all going to a showdown'. Indeed, Frank and Richie could have quite easily spent a good chunk more of the movie in their individual orbits without the audience wishing it would all come crashing to earth. That they are brought together through sensible cause and effect, and that it all reads clearly in the plotting, only guarantees that we're happy tracing the routes laid out for us.

Not that there aren't echoes and points of similarity between the two stories from the earliest opening scenes and, of course, one rather tired argument can still be heard rumbling in the background - that good guy and bad guy have so much in common - but over that relatively uninspiring bassline, there's a whole lot more. One early sequence with a dead junkie in Richie's storyline subtly resonates with a key plan of Frank's that, much later, Richie has to crack and I couldn't help but wonder if it was an invention of screenwriter Steve Zaillian or director Ridley Scott or if they were just highlighting this curious collusion of independent lives.

Overall, Frank's story is ultimately the more compelling - he gets title billing after all, and is, in effect the thing that happens to Richie, rather than Richie being the thing that happens to him. One particularly well-devised set of ups, downs and ups again in his rise to power revolves around ego, high fashion and flash, dramatised with the help of a crazy big fur coat (which is in a way somewhat reminiscent of Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka and her hate-love affair with decadent western hats). Frank ultimately undergoes much more change than Richie, is surrounded with a much more attention-grabbing cast of secondary characters - including the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of his brothers - and, in the final evaluation, can be seen as being subject to the film's real lessons. Washington is generally better than Crowe, too - and not only because he doesn't end up delivering a number of his lines in an Australian accent.

As you'd expect for a Ridley Scott film, the production design and cinematography are absolutely top-notch stuff and, in fact, they even rise towards the top in Scott's exceptional pantheon. I could list details of set and shot design all day long, but do keep a close look out for the small church across the street from Frank's chosen place of worship, the phone numbers and notes doodled on Richie's wall by his phone, or the way Scott flaunts the final hiding place (ahem) of Frank's supply in the third-act search scene. This is truly a film of many, many layers, visual, auditory and narrative, most of them quite brilliantly conceived, often very imaginative and fundamentally cinematical. Because of this I think American Gangster has now bumped Matchstick Men aside and taken its place as the best of Scott's films since the incredible early years run of The Duellists, Alien and Bladerunner. Specific mention must also go to editor Pietro Scalia who, a few deliberate jump cuts aside, knocks just about every splice in the film out of the park. A raid on a drug processing operation in a tenement block showcases the same kind of comprehensible chaos that Scalia preserved flawlessly in Black Hawk Down.

My hands down favourite moment in the film comes in a dramatisation of the Ali-Frazier bout of 1971. It's relatively early in the investigation and Richie Roberts is tracking Frank Lucas, still not yet clear on who he is, or quite what impact he is having on the city's organised crime and drug trade. The cop has a camera and snaps a couple of shots of the gangster, flashed up on screen as still images as he does so. As we move from the first to the second, not only is Frank's character crystallized but we understand that Richie himself now understands who this guy really is, and something of what he's going to have to do now. It's awesome stuff - a monumental moment in the story related largely by two still images - if dependent, of course, on their surrounding shots and other info we've been fed here and there in the scene, if not elsewhere in the film. This is why I go to the cinema, for bolts of lightning like this.

American Gangster is released in November in most territories, by the end of January in most others. Do your best to see it, and see it on a very big screen and with very good sound. This cops 'n' pushers film is a genuine classic, easily the best of its kind since The French Connection and, any comparison between Hackman and Crowe or that car chase aside, better even than that.


Poughkeepsie said...

Awesome review. Definitely checking this one out now.

ArchCarrier said...

Great review; thanks!

And though I do have a sweet spot for Gladiator and have to see the long cut of Kingdom of Heaven again to fully appreciate it, I think you may be right about Matchstick Men, even if mentioning it seemed to be one of your 'Brendonisms' at first. The film was definitely something new for Ridley Scott (kind of like The Good Year, but in a good way :-)