Movie News & Reviews

Performance by Denzel dominates "American Gangster"

Some non-American whose name I can't remember and probably couldn'tspell even if I did once said America's two best contributions to theworld were jazz and crime stories.

He said this before "The Simpsons" existed, so I'm sure he'd revisehis opinion now, but he'd still be right on about the crime stories.

In fact, we're so good at them we sometimes try too hard to make themspecial extra good, the way the trailers for "American Gangster" madeit out to be "Black American Dream Godfather."

Thankfully, it's not as hamfistedly political and thematic as its previews suggested, but neither does it manage to find much in its unusual setting that hasn't already been done a lot better in a lot of different movies before it.

Denzel Washington's a bit player in the Harlem drug trade, the driver,bodyguard and gopher to the main man, Bumpy Johnson. Johnson's amodern-day Robin Hood whose strength keeps his territory in order, andwhen he dies, any number of minor thugs fight to take up the scraps.

Pushed around by local crook Idris Elba, Washington flies himself outto Bangkok, the source of the mountains of heroin flowing into theVietnam War. With no middlemen, Washington's able to put purerproduct on the street for a price so low he soon holds more sway overthe "horse" trade than his mentor ever did.

Washington tries to keep a low profile, upbraiding his brothers andcousins whenever they stir up trouble or when they dress up in thekind of '70s flash so cool even nuns wish the decade had never ended,but he's not immune to the attention-grabbing temptations of suddenriches (and who would be when they look that good in a chinchilla-furcoat). Pressured on one side by honest cops such as Russell Crowe'santi-drug unit and corrupt ones such as Josh Brolin who want their cut ofthe profits, and on the other by Harlem rivals and a jealous mafia,it's only a matter of time before Washington's crew starts to showsome cracks.

"American Gangster" captures the look of the '70s so perfectly thatdespite the fact I wasn't alive for any of it I can say with uttercertainty Ridley Scott hired a team of time-wizards to send hiscameras back into the past. Washington's performance is unsettling;powerful and charismatic, it's easy to get awed by him until his angerbursts into sudden violence. With 157 minutes of run time, his riseand fall over the span of nearly a decade unfurls at a pace that neverfeels rushed or jumpy.

All that time to build the story just makes it all the morefrustrating that nobody else's character ever really registers. Crowedoes his part well, but his part is exactly the same kind of "greatcop, terrible at relationships" type we've seen from Sipowicz toMackey to McNulty.

Perhaps that's the way Crowe's real-life counterpart rolled (themovie's based on a true story), yet the big benefit of being able tomake things up is you can make them more interesting than what reallyhappened. I mean, I don't know about you, but the parts of my reallife that aren't spent writing earth-shatteringly important moviereviews would need some serious rewrites to make for a compellingscript. Washington's wife's role doesn't accomplish anything besidesmaking me sad I'll never date anyone like her; Crowe's crew includesthe RZA and John Hawkes from "Deadwood" and they don't get to doanything cooler than stare at photos of criminals. With norecognizable personality, their ups and downs aren't easy to careabout.

The movie's dramatic tension also takes a stern beating from the wayall of its revelatory scenes are so incredibly predictable. Havethese types of scenes been done a jillion times before, or is itsomething in the way they're shot that gives away what's about tohappen with such precision that if you were the type of person whoactually gets to go to movies with friends, you would be able to turnto those friends and annoy them to the point where they would nolonger be your friends by guessing exactly how the rest of thesequence will play out? I don't know the answer to that. I'm notentirely certain what I just asked. I just know it was a letdown toalways know what was coming before I saw it.

"American Gangster" feels like a movie a talented director would makeif his only exposure to crime came from other crime movies. Epic inits way, and at times a fascinating snapshot of an era, its onlymoment that feels original and surprising is its last one, whenWashington looks out on a world that may not have been possiblewithout his force of will.

Grade: B-