From conversations with some of you, it appears we’re pretty much on the same page. I found American Gangster entertaining and well-made, but overall unsatisfying. Perhaps it was because of the businessman-like demeanor of Denzel’s Frank Lucas, or because of the lack of interaction between him and Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts, but the film lacked the sizzle and electrifying suspense of last year’s violent gang film, The Departed.

Which isn’t to say that Gangster was looking to emulate the 2007 Best Picture winner, you can leave that to last month’s flop We Own the Night. Clearly, Ridley Scott looked to Scorcese’s earlier masterpiece Goodfellas and its own logical predecessor The Godfather for inspiration. And while the comparison is probably unfair, Gangster fails to emerge from the shadow of either of them.

(My comments will continue, after the jump. As with all posts on this blog, spoiler alerts within.)

I bring up Goodfellas in large part because of the presence of Nicholas Pileggi as an executive producer. Pileggi adapted his book Wise Guy for the screen in Goodfellas and also co-wrote Casino with Scorcese, so the Italian mob pedigree is there for this movie about a black drug lord who emulates the mafia to build his own empire. But those two films lacked the detective/cop angle, which makes sense when you consider that the Crowe detective story was much weaker than Denzel’s half-Corleone/half-Gekko tactics.

My ambivalence toward Gangster stems from the distracting journeys into the private life of Det. Roberts, scenes that didn’t add much to the engrossing qualities of a mob movie and prolonged the film into an unnecessary 157 minutes. On the same lines, could the dirty cops headed by Josh Brolin be any sleazier? What an un-nuanced, distracting performance that over-compensated for its need to counter Roberts’ honesty.

The mafia genre has been around long enough to be parodied and spoofed, and as Claudia sagely pointed out to me, has shouldered the “glamorization” criticism since the days of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. And it’s to Scott’s credit that he directed a worthy addition to the list of modern interpretations of the mob movie. The film shows its potential in the closing scenes, a clear and confident homage to The Godfather that presents a satisfying build-up to the first interaction between Crowe and Washington. Scott’s splicing of the government’s infiltration and demolition of the Blue Magic network with Lucas at church works well on its own merits, but the montage (you know I love montages) jumps to a whole new level when juxtaposed with Coppola’s infamous baptism scene in the last hour of GF1.

But other than that scene, Gangster was rather unforgettable and unable to match the vibrancy of the films it emulated. Outside of the mob drama, but clearly a part of the cat/mouse chase sub-genre, is The French Connection, another classic that Gangster steals from. In a taut 104 minutes, AFI-talking head and occasional director William Friedkin told a drug crime story with character development and a heart-pounding chase scene. In Gangster, an Italian mob boss makes reference to the French Connection drug money (and the heroin tester scene is a near copy of a similar scene in French Connection), but the allusions (which I appreciated) only magnify the movie’s relative dullness.

A few random thoughts:

Cuba Gooding looked like he had a good time portraying Nicky “Mr. Untouchable” Barnes, and it showed in his performance. I hope this is the start of a promising rebound for him.

That Norman Rockwell reference was so forced…Claudia and I saw it coming before the turkey even came to the table.

Maybe I’m spoiled from the inspired music choices made by David Chase (Sopranos) and Martin Scorcese, but Gangster needed some punch to its score and music soundtrack. Marc Streitenfeld’s score was practically non-existent, and I’d have loved to have some contextual funk (or whatever) to bring me back to 1970s Harlem.

What say you, Jared?

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