Movie Review
American Gangster
American Gangster poster
By Scott Sycamore     Published November 1, 2007
US Release: November 2, 2007

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe , Denzel Washington , Cuba Gooding Jr. , Josh Brolin

R violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality
Running Time: 157 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $130,127,620
Neither the story nor characters have anything new to bring to the table.
"Ridley Scott" and "biopic" in the same sentence, describing a blockbuster movie that's about to come out, doesn't exactly whet my appetite. This is a perfect example of a mainstream film, with all the "right" elements in place – Denzel Washington AND Russell Crowe? Together?! In the SAME MOVIE?! YES! And Ridley at the helm as the aged-hipster cherry on top! And it’s a BIG OSCAR CONTENDING MOVIE! Blah blah blah...

Funny how a flick about a black gangster from Harlem is so whitewashed. Everything is so cliché and by-the-numbers. There were moments where I let out groans. Neither the story nor characters have anything new to bring to the table. Yes, I already knew that there was drug smuggling going on in the Vietnam days. And yes I also know that gangsters rise and then fall. That's somewhat established at this point. So what we really have is just another rote, deflated biopic, except this time it's posing as some kind of kick-ass crime-machine. But it ain't: it's just another sag-fest from the Scott Brothers.

Let's start with Denzel as the titular figure. He really is a liability. The role starts out with some promise, but he then develops into his tried-and-true "likable" persona for the most part. This really doesn't gel with the super-gangster image they're trying to cultivate here. Most of the time he's just sitting around being charming. Occasionally he gets pissed and shows his gangsta side by knocking over a cup of coffee really forcefully. It's basically as cliché and lightweight a performance as Denzel has ever turned in, totally expecting to coast on his star power; and Ridley lets him slide every step of the way.

Russell Crowe is a good screen presence, but I don't know if I really buy him as a character like this. Even though he inhabits the role, he never really "becomes" it. And it doesn't help that his character is an absolute nothing in terms of interest or even solid back-story. He's just a standard role in a standard story in a standard movie. Nothing in this piece jogs our emotions.

Much of the blame has to be laid on the feet of Hollywood uber-screenwriter Steven Zaillian. His work is just so hackey here. He expects us to swallow lines like "I ain't runnin from nobody! This is America!!!" and "If you ain't a somebody, then you nobody." Wow, those are some classic lines right there Steve. Such gravitas. This white-bread guy has no ear whatsoever for black speech, or indeed dialogue of any kind. There are just so many laughable moments in this serious, mega-budget blockbuster film that you will likely slap your forehead in disbelief several times over. These geniuses in Hollywood will do anything to get a fat check.

On the brighter side, there are a few rappers in this movie. The RZA has the most visible turn as a cop on Crowe's squad. RZA looks more authentic to the time period than anyone else in the damn cast. There are a lot of other recognizable faces such as Armand Assante and Ted Levine, but as with all the other characters, there's nothing for them to work with. The cinematography and look of the picture is good, but that's to be expected with a huge budget and a top-tier director. There's really not much good I have to say other than: it wasn't “that” bad. On the level of a watch-able cable or direct-to-DVD flick.

I forgot one thing that I wanted to mention: Josh Brolin must be the biggest asshole on the planet. He certainly plays exactly that in this film, but he just looks that way in general. Is that why he keeps getting cast in these scum-baggy roles? Is he actually a nice guy in person? He definitely makes it hard to tell. He's certainly got his daddy at his back, who obviously got him into the industry; so one wonders if he's just a spoiled child of privilege, or a genuinely gifted actor who locks down his jobs on merit. Either way we've been seeing a lot of him and I expect we'll see even more. I'm not saying he's bad or ineffective; it's just...calm the fuck down man!
Scott's Grade: C+
Scott's Overall Grading: 417 graded movies
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'American Gangster' Articles
  • Craig's review C+
    November 4, 2007    American Gangster is two and a half hours long and it seems like that has less to do with plotting and developing and more to do with just stuffing well known actors into roles that really aren't that juicy. -- Craig Younkin