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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Film Review: American Gangster Milks Nostalgia For Gentleman Thug

"Based on a True Story" says the opening credits of Ridley Scott's gangster opus American Gangster, and as is often the case the facts get mashed around to make a more compelling movie. This is par for the course, but the credits could also have said "Based on films by Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin, not to mention Mervin LeRoy's Little Caesar."

Serpico and The French Connection loom large over the policier aspects of American Gangster. Despite the title, more than half of the movie follows Russell Crowe's character Frank, Richie Roberts, one of a handful of good cops on the force. The Little Caesar part comes in with the story of Frank Lucas, played with graceful charm by Denzel Washington. Washington gives us the gangster as up and coming businessman, the black heroin dealing equivalent of Sam Walton.

Washington is so likable, even while setting a man on fire or blowing a rival's brains out, that like Cagney in Little Caeser the audience's empathy is with the putative bad guy. Crowe lets us see his character's flaws but also his innate goodness, his link with Lucas is his code of ethics. That leaves the rest of law enforcement -- embodied by Josh Brolin's mustache -- as the bad guys.

Brolin's mustache is very good as a very bad cop, and it must be said that the range his mustache has shown this year -- from cheesy early 80's exploitation in Grindhouse to neo-noir Western grit with a Texan twang in No Country For Old Men to his gruff New York bull on the take in Gangster.

But I digress. The anti-authoritarian conceit of the cops as heavies is so very 70s, as is the constancy of footage from Vietnam on the television screen in scene after scene. Though the 'Nam angle has a direct tie-in to the movie's plot the bigger tie-in is clear. We are in an era that, much like the 70s, is marked by deep distrust of public officials and institutions. Like the 70s, this is due in part to an unpopular unwinnable war and a less than forthright President.

So does all of this borrowed stuff add up to anything? It does, namely a sometimes engrossing film that breaks no new ground but is assured in the moves it tries. The two leads are, as always, superb and there are enough small details to flesh the characters out. The pacing is brisk, the action clear.

What keeps this from sticking in the mind longer is not just the familiarity of the themes. Television has done such a great job of exploring complex characters within this milieu -- from The Shield to The Wire to The Sopranos, that the dictates of fitting the sprawling story into a 157 minute running time sacrifices shading and nuance. Beats have to be hit harder, story arcs are compressed, and secondary characters are more cardboardy signifiers than real people.

This is particularly felt in the last act, which feels like a too-pat roll-up of everything that was meticulously set-up earlier in the film. Our two protags take a long time getting together and when they do it's all over before it really has a chance to register. Still, the very last scene is one of the simpler and subtler ones, taking us forward to the early 90s -- a different world with a Public Enemy soundtrack.

American Gangster gets three out of five Serpicos:

Here's the trailer:

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