Movie Review: American Gangster

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe
Release date: November 2, 2007

Review: 3 out of 5

Best Scene: When Denzel pops that dude from “Daddy’s Little Girls” in the head.

American Gangster

What do you do when you attempt to make a “serious” film about a gangster from Harlem’s rise to riches and spend over a $100 million doing so? You pander like a politician to to the young generation to fill seats. And who better to fill seats than the “dumb” hip hop generation. The marketing of this film has been impeccable. Everything from the trailers showing Denzel Washington pumping his fist over Jay-Z’s classic record “Heart of the City” to casting rappers T.I., Common and RZA and let’s not forget Jay-Z releasing an album by the same name that he says is “inspired by the movie”. To any hip hop head, having Jay-Z inspired by your movie, so much so to make an album about it, is a flashing light sign saying “MUST SEE”.

T.I. American Gangster

That’s pretty much where the hype ends. This movie is without a doubt the most boring gangster film ever made. If Smokin Aces (2006) was the genres contrived attempt at reaching a younger audience through hyper-reality, this movie is this years attempt at putting those same kids to bed. The film is mature (read: for old white guys), it has an interesting story and it may win an Oscar for best picture (since most movies that win best picture are long and boring), but that’s about it. Director Ridley Scott, hasn’t the slightest idea of how to pace this movie.

For starters, we are introduced to Denzel’s character, real life gangster, Frank Lucas who is supposed to be a driver for Harlem’s kingpin Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) but we never see him driving a car around. All of a sudden Frank and Bumpy enter a bank and Bumpy suffers a heart attack and dies. And then next thing we know Frank is Harlem’s #1 heroin pusher. What happened to the journey? I was expecting flash back scenes and child hood sequences like all other movie’s in the gangster genre. Heck, if they had re-made Scarface with Denzel as the lead I would have been happy. The film needed to build up Denzel’s character as to his motivations for going from lackey driver to drug lord. This is undoubtedly the biggest problem with the film.

Denzel Washington American Gangster

Moreover, the film is just plain boring for a gangster film. There are hardly any random acts of violence, the cinematography is analogous to a bird watching documentary and even the musical score falls short of painting the vibrant soundscape of the 70’s. These small things are guaranteed to put any young person to sleep, not to mention the three hour length.

Aside from these missteps, the film does try to “preach” by showing the fall of a drug boss and there are scenes near the end of the film which show the adverse effects on the heroine users. However, the end of the film turns Denzel into Leonardo DiCaprio from Catch Me If You Can, by helping authorities he is able to get a 70 year sentence shortened to 15 years! Kids its okay to be a drug dealer as long as you cooperate with authorities when you are caught. I also didn’t feel the movie held true to the original New York Magazine article The Return of Super Fly in which the real life Lucas is much more arrogant and despicable than charming Denzel could ever be (except in Training Day). Whatever happened to that Denzel?

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