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"American Gangster"

Directed by Ridley Scott.
Written by Steve Zaillian.  Based on an article by Mark Jacobson.
Starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

Release Year:  2007
Review Date:  11/2/07


Even the most pessimistic of film fans would have to admit--Ridley Scott has done some of America's most popular and enduring mainstream films ever, even if they didn't start out as mainstream work.  "Alien", "GI Jane", "Blade Runner", "Thelma & Louise", "Gladiator", "Black Hawk Down", he has touched quite a few people over the years.  The last couple Scott films haven't done the job (I still have scary dreams about "Matchstick Men"), but with "American Gangster", the ol' Ridley Scott you used to know has come home.

That's because "American Gangster" gets back to what the man knows best--strong ensemble casts, brutal violence, lots of unnecessary profanity, themes that you will recognize from the jump but still embrace thanks to how well they are done, and a general feeling that this film is for adults, adults who can appreciate a retread in terms of a story but has just enough new angles and little pieces of insight that you can sit back and enjoy the show.  "American Gangster" is as unoriginal as its name implies--a gangster (Denzel Washington, back in bad guy mode for the first time since "Training Day") who happens to be American runs 1969 Harlem like the mob ran things downtown, be it drugs, paying off cops, racketeering, money laundering, you name it.  We get so many token shots of drugs being grown, measured, packaged, stored, cut, boiled on spoons, handled by half-naked women and thrown into baggies that I basically ran through at least 30 movies I have seen with THE EXACT SAME FUCKING SEQUENCES starting with "New Jack City" and coming right into the present; shit, I just saw "We Own the Night" and you almost think that these drug scenes were stolen from that movie, they were so familiar.

(I had to admit on the way home tonight--I'm clean as a whistle.  Never done any kinds of drugs, never been drunk, never smoked a cigarette; never done a thing.  But, even I know how to cut cocaine to the point that I can dilute the product to be about 30% pure and sell it for street market price, thanks to the power of the movies.)

As familiar as this hook is, there's enough of a wrinkle here or there (Denzel Washington!  Drugs coming from Vietnam, not South America!  Black mobsters, not Italian ones!) to keep "American Gangster" moving.  Wow, so much of this kind of filmmaking is hackneyed and ridiculous...New York City is the home of the action (check); half the cops in the movie are dirty (check); the lead gangster owns a nightclub (check); the cop's flaws are that he is going through a divorce (check); a drive-by shooting is attempted on a major character (check); I could keep going for days.  But, the execution of the film is so good, and the familiar faces so familiar, and the soundtrack is so strong, and the ending is actually somewhat unique...I can't figure it out, but it made me think that "American Gangster" was pretty good!

That's because Washington and co-star Russell Crowe (who last worked with Washington in--you guessed it--"Virtuosity" a hundred years ago) lead an incredible cast.  There are so many rappers in this movie that I wondered aloud why every black person in the music business couldn't get a role in this movie; you telling me we couldn't find a rapper to replace Cuba Gooding Jr. or Joe Morton?  No WAY!  If you've got room for T.I., the RZA, and Common, you've got room for more rappers.  Trust me!  But, even folks like Carla Gugino, or Jon Polito, or Idris Elba (from "The Wire") show up in small parts in "American Gangster", and when you add that to the cream at the top, boy, you've got some top-flight talent.  The movie gets good mileage from its 197X timeframe; the costumes, the cars, the little in-jokes about things like microwaves or wiretaps that are the size of a phone all works, and creates a great setting for familiar territory.

All of this ends up being a 150-minute ride, one that is generally very entertaining to watch.  I don't think this is good enough to end up in Oscar's back pocket, but it's got a lot going for it.  Check it out! 

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09