Nov. 1, 2007 Already seen Michael Clayton and Rendition? That's OK, they just keep coming: really, really goodmovies. Great, in fact. On the heels of the above two, comes American Gangster, hailed variously as a "gritty, glitzy Valentine to the 1970 drug wars" or an updated Superfly vs. Serpico.
Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, says, "Call it the black Scarface or 'the Harlem Godfather,' or just one hell of an exciting movie, but the fact-based, 1970s-era American Gangster is already looking like a major awards contender. Denzel Washington looms like a colossus as notorious drug lord Frank Lucas, and in the still, watchful center of his volcanic performance you'll find the measure of a dangerous man."
Based on the life of drug-kingpin-turned-informant, Lucas, who grew up in segregated North Carolina where he watched as his cousin was shot by the Klan for looking at a white girl. He eventually made his way to Harlem where he became a heroin kingpin by traveling to Asia's Golden Triangle to make connections, shipping heroin back to the US in the coffins of soldiers killed in Vietnam.
Curiously, or not, Lucas is also featured in a current BET documentary on the lives of six notorious African-American gangsters of recent decades.
Travers continues, "There's more good news: A combustible Russell Crowe channels Serpico as Richie Roberts, the honest Jersey cop who aches to take Frank down. Steven Zaillian, sourcing Mark Jacobson's 2000 magazine interview with Lucas ("The Return of Superfly"), brings scrappy life to a script that spans more than a decade. Camera legend Harris Savides shoots on the fly, as if he'd sneaked into a Seventies time capsule. And Ridley Scott, at the top of his game, directs."
Travers isn't totally starry-eyed however. He says the movie (a bit more than two and a half hours) is "overstuffed," referring to aired out performances on Roberts' domestic problems.
But, again, Travers lauds the climax, which he says "allows Washington and Crowe to finally occupy the screen together. They clash like titans — they're something to see.
"Ditto the movie, which goes to the heart of America's obsession with success as a killer instinct. That's why the film's moral indignation with Frank can't match its fascination with his balls of steel," says Travers. "Superfly is a Hollywood fantasy. Frank is for real. As the real Frank said, 'People like me. People like the fuck out of me.' Maybe that's what's so scary."
J. Hoberman in the Village Voice says, "Ambitious as American Gangster is, it's well suited to Washington's particular star quality — the circumspect badass. Washington plays Lucas as a combination of ruthless thug and gentlemanly striver. His two sides are established in a murky opening sequence when, factotum to old-school crime boss Bumpy Johnson, Lucas torches a guy in one shot and tosses Christmas turkeys to the crowd in the next."
One would guess that could illustrate two sides of a character, or, certainly, set the mood of the thing,
It's not all beer and skittles with the critics, however. Calling it "claptrap," Nick Schager in Slant magazine, says, "Not only is American Gangster dumb as a rock, but it's also far too convinced of its import to be any fun. ….Ridley thinks he's crafting his own Oscar-baiting The Departed, an assumption predicated on the erroneous belief that his material is representative of something profound."
It is (not surprisingly) rated R for violence, pervasive drug content, language, nudity and sexuality. Now, that's an R that's earned its chops.
It starts Thursday at Market Square East.