Sunday, December 09, 2007

American Gangster

2007, US, directed by Ridley Scott

The spectre of The Godfather hangs over American Gangster, with Ridley Scott unsubtly channeling Francis Ford Coppola, particularly as his picture nears its climax, which intercuts a church scene with a series of police raids. Indeed, given American Gangster's carefully evoked 1970s New York setting, you half expect one of Scott's characters to emerge from a screening of The Godfather, though they're mostly far too driven to enjoy their leisure hours. Like Martin Scorsese's The Departed, American Gangster ultimately can't hold up in comparison to earlier, stronger films, though Scott's film at least avoids the over-the-top antics of a Jack Nicholson.

As with many other films about criminal life, American Gangster sometimes runs the risk of glorifying that which it seeks to depict; as if in conscious counter-balance to this, Scott includes several montage sequences that outline, in squalid detail, the ultimate consequences of the drug trade. Similarly, just as the eponymous gangster, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), threatens to become too sympathetic he carries out one of his most arbitrarily violent actions, undercutting his store of charisma.

Scott attempts to explore the wider political backdrop against which Lucas rose to power - most notably the Vietnam war and the aftermath of the 1960s - and while he's capable of making the occasional telling point (there's a recurring joke about the police's inability to believe that a black criminal could possibly be in overall control of such a drug network), for the most part the effort to stitch Lucas's story into the broader fabric of American life remains schematic. If the title didn't so consciously strive for greater import, it might be possible to appreciate the film as a simple chronicle of New York criminal life (Scott is a sufficiently accomplished storyteller that the film's ample running time never seems excessive), but it doesn't have the conviction to match its ambitions.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States