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American Gangster (2007)
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 2/19/2008
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/18/2008
As long as filmmakers think that they can find a new angle (and if there's a chance to make money), they will tackle well-established genres. Even if that genre may have already reached its artistic peak. For example, we still get outer-space sci-fi movies, even though they all get compared to Star Wars. While there have been many entries since the 1920s, many would agree that the organized crime/crime-boss genre was perfected with The Godfather in 1972. And while it wasn't well-received at the time, 1983's Scarface is also seen as a great example of the genre. Still, we get new entries into this category, such as American Gangster.
American Gangster tells the stories of two people living on opposite sides of the law in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Richie Roberts (Rusell Crowe) is a New Jersey narcotics officer whose reputation takes a hit when he turns in nearly $1 million which he finds at a crime scene. (Apparently, honest cops can't be trusted.) Still, Roberts continues to fight crime while he is studying to become a lawyer. He is eventually asked to lead a Federal Narcotics Task Force in the New Jersey area. He puts together a group of honest cops and they begin to search for drug lords.
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) lives in Harlem, where he works for local crime-boss Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). When Bumpy dies, Frank takes over the business, but he wants to change it. Hearing that many soldiers in Vietnam were becoming addicted to heroin, Frank travels to Thailand, where he makes a deal to import pure heroin at a very low price. He then begins to sell the drugs and immediately the money pours in. Franks brings his family from North Carolina to aid him in the business, and soon, he's built an empire. As Frank's gang becomes more powerful, he ruthlessly exterminates his enemies. And yet, he's able to maintain a fairly low profile.
Meanwhile, Richie learns of this new heroin, called "Blue Magic", which is flooding the streets (and killing many addicts due to the purity of the drug). His team begins to investigate this, assuming that they will be looking for the usual sort of criminals. Eventually, they learn that Frank Lucas is doing something in Harlem which has never been done before.
American Gangster comes to us from Director Ridley Scott and Writer Steven Zaillian, both of whom have done their homework. This is a very richly textured and detailed film which really takes its time in exploring the lives of both of these men. (Although, in all fairness, it spends much more time on Frank, and leaves some holes in Richie's story.) The movie is very broad in scope, as it travels from the streets of Harlem to the jungles of Asia. The cast list is extensive and the movie employs dozens of extras. As one would expect, a great deal of work has gone into the look of the film, as it perfects the locations and the costumes, making them reflect the period.
Scott gets great performances from his leading men. Washington portrays Frank Lucas as a confident, stoic man who never seems to have a second of self-doubt. While his language lets us know that Frank isn't highly-educated, we understand that he has street smarts and he quickly has his business up and running. The fact that Washington plays Lucas as very controlled makes him all the more scary, as he never loses control. When we do see Frank become violent, he never breaks a sweat. Conversely, Crowe makes Richie into a character who always seems to be one step behind everyone else. Crowe has played some cocky characters in the past, but we get none of that here. Richie knows what he's doing, but tough breaks in his life have made his world-wary. Crowe's hang-dog look tells us that Richie is an earnest man who just wants to do what is right.
This is a well made movie which has, at its core, a character who changed the drug-dealing culture in New York City. And yet, American Gangster isn't a very entertaining movie. Save for the fact that some details of both Richie and Frank's lives aren't as clear as they could be, the story is well-told, but it's never engaging. The film lacks a character with which the audience can identify. And while Scott's direction is meticulous and detailed, it's also very cold and sterile. I never felt any true love or hate for the characters, and there's very little suspense in the film. The biggest problem with American Gangster is that I felt that I'd seen it all before. While it may be based on a true story, the film has elements of The Godfather, Scarface, and The French Connection. Several parts of the movie reminded me of New Jack City. And while some may consider that an exploitation film, I find it much more engaging than American Gangster. In fact, I didn't really find the movie interesting until the last 10 minutes, and by then, it was too late. American Gangster is certainly a good entry into the crime-family sub-genre of film, just don't go into it expecting to be blown away.
American Gangster makes a name for itself on DVD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer here looks very good, as the image is very sharp and clear. Despite the fact that the movie has a somewhat "gritty" look, there is virtually no grain on the image here and no defects from the source material. There are a lot of muted and monochromatic tones in the film (Frank always wears a dark suit), but the occasional splash of color looks fine. Artifacting is kept to a minimum and I didn't spot any video noise or distortion. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are very good, and they really bring the street scenes to life. We get some very good surround and subwoofer effects during the action sequences, especially the raid in the third act.
For this review, the two-disc edition of American Gangster was viewed. Disc 1 contains both the Theatrical cut of the film and the unrated extended version, which runs some 18 minutes longer. We get an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Ridley Scott and Writer Steven Zaillian on the Theatrical version. The two weren't recorded together, so we get no discussion here. We hear from Scott the most, as he gives us details about the production, focusing on the locations and the look of the film. Both speakers talk about the origins of the movie and how they met the real-life Lucas and Roberts while planning the film. The remainder of the extras are found on Disc 2. The DVD contains 2 DELETED SCENES which run about 4 minutes. One is an alternate opening to the film and the second is extra footage from the wedding scene. "Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster" (78 minutes) tackles many facets of the film's production. The first part is the one which was most important to me; the exploration of the true stories. The real Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas tell their stories. They essentially reiterate what we saw in the movie while adding their own personal touches. We also hear from Dickie Lucas. It's nice to hear that the movie really captured the actual events. Next, the film's costumes are examined. Designer Janty Yates discusses the inspirations and designs of the clothes in the movie. The actors speak about the costumes as well. There is then an in-depth look at the making of the movie, including the development of the script, hiring Ridley Scott, and the casting. The location shooting and the production design (recreating a period look) is highlighted. The "Ali vs. Frazier" fight scene is dissected and we see how that famous night was recreated using extras and dummies. We see recording sessions as the film's music is examined. Pietro Scalia talks about the editing process on the film. "Case Files" is broken up into three parts. "Script Meeting" (8 minutes) is footage of a tele-conference with Scott, Zaillian, Richie Roberts, and others discussing the script. "Herion Test Show & Tell" (9 minutes) shows Scott learning what can be done to visually show the police testing the "Blue Magic" heroin. "Setting up the Takedown" (8 minutes) is simply on-set footage of the drug bust scene being planned.
On October 14, 2008, Universal Studios Home Entertainment brought American Gangster to Blu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. The image looks very good, as the picture is quite sharp and clear. The colors look good, most notably any splashes of bold or bright colors, and the image shows a nice amount of detail. However, Scott's insistence on giving the movie a gritty 70's feel has rendered this transfer a bit flat. The Disc offers a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The audio here is quite impressive and it serves the film well. Street scenes bring forth nicely detailed stereo effects and some well-placed surround sound. If you really want an idea of the power of this track, simply go to Chapter 18. The gunfight delivers a barrage of bullets flying through the speakers and the subwoofer translates the booming shotguns. Overall, a solid transfer.
The American Gangster Blu-ray Disc features the same special features as the 2-disc DVD, plus several additional ones. The "U-Control" feature allows the viewer access to Picture-in-picture segments which focus on various aspects of the movie. "Hip-Hop Infusion Featuring Common and T.I." (5 minutes) has the two rappers, along with Fab5Freddy, discussing their roles in the film and how they feel that the film reflects the attitudes of rap. "The BET Special: The Making of American Gangster" (18 minute) is an in-depth, but fairly standard featurette which contains comments from the cast and filmmakers, some behind-the-scenes footage and lots of clips. The actors discuss their roles and the reality of the film. "Dateline NBC: American Gangster First Look" (21 minutes) utilizes the film as a jumping off point to be a mini-documentary on Frank Lucas. The piece contains interviews with Lucas, Crowe, and Washington. The Disc has MUSIC VIDEOS for the songs "Do You Feel Me (Remix)" by Anthony Hamilton featuring Ghostface Killah, and "Blue Magic" by Jay-Z. The extras wrap up with the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.
Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long