Written PostFrom the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the Director’s Cut of American Gangster

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the Director’s Cut of American Gangster

Sometimes I get DVDs and I watch them immediately, devouring the movie and the special features within 24 hours.  Sometimes I’ll get a DVD and, for one reason or another, it will sit on my shelf for months and months.  Such was the case with the Director’s Cut of Ridley Scott’s 2007 film, American Gangster.

I enjoyed American Gangster when I first saw it in theatres.  I didn’t love it the way I love some of Scott’s other films (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and the vastly underrated Kingdom of Heaven), but I quite liked it, and when I saw that an extended version of the film was available on DVD in early 2008, I snapped it up.  I’ve really enjoyed the extended versions of several others of Ridley Scott’s films, most particularly the extended version of the afore-mentioned Kingdom of Heaven, which is a revelation in contrast to the theatrical release, so I was excited to see this new version of American Gangster.  But, for whatever reason, I just never got around to watching the DVD until recently.

American Gangster tells two parallel stories.  One half of the film is about Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington.  The movie opens with the death of Frank’s mentor, the powerful Harlem drug-dealer Bumpy Johnson.  Frank marshals his keen intellect and all that he learned from Bumpy in order to take control of the Harlem drug scene.  His boldest move was to travel to Southeast Asia in order to purchase heroin straight from the source, enabling him to bypass all the other crime-figure “middle managers” and sell a more powerful product at cheaper prices than his competition.  That coup, combined with his patience and his near-fanatical focus on avoiding the spotlight, enabled him to amass an extraordinary amount of power and money all while operating under the noses of what local law enforcement officials weren’t on the take.

Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, a New Jersey cop with a fierce sense of honesty.  In an infamous story depicted early in the film, he finds a million dollars in cash but turns it over to his superiors in the department rather than keeping it for himself.  In contrast to those qualities, his personal life is a disaster, and when the film opens his wife (the wonderful Carla Gugino) has decided to divorce him.  Richie eventually gets himself involved with (and becomes a key figure in leading) the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, where his investigative skills and a decent amount of luck puts him on the trail of Frank Lucas.

American Gangster is a film dancing on the edge of greatness.  Washington and Crowe both turn in powerhouse performances, and they’re both so engaging that both halves of the film’s story-line feel equally significant and interesting.  (A great script and some fine editing help with that as well.)  They are supported by a wonderfully deep ensemble, including Josh Brolin’s scene-stealing turn as the corrupt New York Detective Trupo; Chiwetel Ejiofor (who I first saw in Serenity and who has been amazing in each of the 10,000 films he has been in since then) as Huey Lucas, one of Frank’s many brothers who for a short while serves as Frank’s right-hand man; Cuba Gooding Jr. (who is terrific, demonstrating just how good he can be when used well) as the flashy Nicky Barnes; and Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire!) as one of Frank’s competitors, Tango.  But my favorite supporting actor has to be Armand Assante’s phenomenally bizarre and iconic performance as the powerful Italian mobster Dominic Cattano.  His performance is an inch away from falling into over-the-top silliness, but he never crosses that line.  He’s only in a few scenes, but many of his lines (delivered in his terrific accent) are the ones that I most remembered after finishing the movie.

Ridley Scott is a phenomenal director, and his unique talents really shine through in this film.  The special features on the DVD emphasize the enormous size of the film — there are 135 speaking parts and hundreds of short scenes taking place all over Manhattan, New Jersey, and also Vietnam, Bangkok, etc.  Mr. Scott’s experience in juggling epic films (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven) surely helped him keep everything under control and pull the film off.  (In his commentary track, Ridley speaks several times of the importance, for him, of not dwelling on how much needed to be accomplished — rather, he says, he just took each day at a time, putting together the film piece by piece.)  Scott is also famous for his involvement in the production design, the location scouting, and everything else that goes into the look of a film — costumes, props, etc.  That enormous care that he and his team poured into those details is evident in every frame of the film, which does a superb job of capturing the feel of New York in the 1970’s.  Nothing feels out of place.

So why did I write, above, that American Gangster is a film dancing on the edge of greatness?  What prevents me from unabashedly recommending this film as a triumph?

Mainly, it’s that the whole thing feels rather familiar.  There have been a lot of amazing movies chronicling the rise and fall of crime figures (The Godfather films, Goodfellas, Casino, Scarface, etc. etc.), so while everything that one watches as American Gangster unfolds is pretty great, it is tainted by a bit of a feeling of “been there, done that.”  For me, at least.  (As an example, the climax of the film is structured as a montage — we see footage of Richie’s closing the net on Frank’s partners and accomplices, all while Frank is in church with his mother, and the whole sequence is scored to the music of the singing in church.  I’d be impressed by the stark contrast that sequence created between Frank’s facade in church and the realities of his life if Francis Ford Coppola hadn’t done pretty much exactly the same thing in his famous climax to the Godfather more than thirty years ago.)

OK, some small spoilers ahead, so be warned.

The only aspect of the film’s story that really struck me as being totally unique were the events of the film’s very final moments. In a series of text pieces, we learn that after spending years working to take down Frank Lucas, and serving as the prosecuting attorney in the case that put him behind bars, Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas struck up a friendship.  The two men wound up working together as Frank provided evidence that allowed Richie to expose an enormous amount of corruption in the New York city police department.  Years later, Richie became a defense attorney, and his first client was none other than Frank Lucas, as Richie argued (successfully) that Frank’s sentence should be reduced as compensation for his aid in all those other cases.

That is an astonishing turn of events, and I really enjoyed learning more, in the DVD’s special features, about this most unlikely of friendships that ultimately emerged between Frank and Richie.  That’s why I think it’s an enormous failure on the film’s part that that twist was saved for a “wow” moment in the film’s final minutes.  Despite the movie’s length (the theatrical cut was about two hours and forty minutes, and the Director’s Cut clocks in at almost three hours), I feel like the film needed another half-hour at the end to more thoroughly explore that extraordinary turn of events.  THERE’S the part of the story — the TRUE story, mind you — that really is unique, and could have separated this tale from all the other similar crime films.  A big missed opportunity, I think.

I was hoping the Director’s Cut would address some of those concerns.  There are an additional couple of minutes added on to the very end of the film that give us a few more scenes between Richie and Frank that take place years after the main events of the film.  These are some nice moments, but I was still hoping for more.  As for the rest of the changes to the film: it’s funny, there are apparently about twenty minutes added on, but other than the new ending I didn’t notice any other differences.  True, I saw the theatrical version over two years ago, but I usually have a good eye for changes made in these sorts of extended cuts.  (Take a look at my anal accounting of all the adjustments made to the extended episodes of Battlestar Galactica‘s final episodes on DVD!)  I guess it’s a good thing that all the new additions blend seamlessly into the film, but I must report that this new cut doesn’t dramatically change any of the film’s story-lines or its over-all impact.

It may not be the most groundbreaking film every made, but American Gangster is an entertaining tale well-told by a bunch of craftsmen at the top of their game.  If you like a good crime saga, check this one out.