by HELEN GEIB
I liked American Gangster. In reviews and at awards time, it seemed to suffer from the perception that it was not the great film it was supposed to be. It’s true that it’s not a great film, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much about it to enjoy and appreciate. High caliber studio films are always welcome. Serious ones like American Gangster all the more so at a time when Hollywood has busied itself churning out crude comedies, throwaway genre entries, and mindless special effects extravaganzas.
American Gangster tells the (highly fictionalized for dramatic effect) true story of a powerful black mobster in 1970s New York City and the organized crime task force that brought him, and the city’s corrupt police narcotics squad, to justice. The movie is an ambitious undertaking that spans many years, follows two story lines that run largely parallel until the end, and draws in a large cast of characters. The film navigates the inevitable complexity of this story with clarity and focus.
The gangster is played by Denzel Washington and his police nemesis by Russell Crowe. A good star turn is among the most reliable pleasures of studio films, and Washington and Crowe are top Hollywood stars for good reason. Fine actors, they are also exceptionally charismatic performers and the film makes good use of that charisma. Washington easily suggests the compelling personality and intelligence capable of creating an organized crime network. Crowe is an equally compelling foil and his strength ensures that the film never succumbs to the false glamor of the gangster lifestyle.
The movie benefits from two of the other great pleasures of studio films: technical brilliance and distinguished supporting casts. There isn’t a note out of place in the period re-creation, and American Gangster is the sort of project that takes its pick in filling out its cast. The smallest part is filled with an able performer, and larger parts are taken by the likes of Ruby Dee, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Carla Gugino.
The film is available in a two disc special edition and a three disc special edition. The two disc release includes commentary with director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian, a making of feature, and deleted scenes. The three disc edition adds music videos, a BET making of special, and a booklet.
Other new releases this week: 30 Days of Night, Lust Caution, Redacted, Rendition