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American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)


   With all of the bulk, but none of the substance, of your average epic production, American Gangster lumbers across the screen with such obviousness that it is almost shocking. By tackling Blaxploitation, one of the fastest, loosest genres ever to break out of the underground, and weighing it down with misplaced pretentions and cocksure movie star posturing, the film does more to deflate legends than enhance them. One pointless montage, set to the song “Across 110th Street”, underscores how little it has to say. Compared both with the original classic film that shared the song’s title and Tarantino’s revisionist Jackie Brown, Gangster fares poorly. Tarantino slyly referenced 110th Street’s, and the entire genre’s, racial tensions with the interracial romance between Pam Grier and Robert Forester. American Gangster doesn’t respond to anything. It only namechecks. Steve Zallian’s script has next to nothing to say about the black experience in America, although as the template for a product designed for consumer consumption, it implicitly says a great deal.


   As much as American Gangster’s lack of purpose condemns it, the fact that itcontributes nothing add to the lexicon of style that has justified most of these morally questionable gangster films is equally damning. Period detail is deployed so insistently that one senses that the story’s roots in reality are being emphasized, but the characterizations and plotting are so obviously contrived and familiar that the effect of verisimilitude is lost. Ridley Scott, who sits behind the camera, brings little to the table beyond his tendency to insert ceiling fans into every possible composition. The film is so impersonally rendered, that the extent that the gangster film has become a defining American ur-narrative becomes clear. The film’s central notion that a corrupt system excuses drug running as old-fashioned capitalism is mildly offensive at best and deeply harmful at worst. The lone, dubious contribution to the genre here seems to be the insistence that a black man can be as successful at peddling drugs as a white one.


   Curiously, Denzel Washington’s drug czar Frank Lucas is presented more as a co-protagonist than an antagonist, getting what seems to be equal screen time as co-lead Russell Crowe’s Detective Roberts. He certainly gets the meatier character arc to play. This focus seems to be some attempt at creating racial equality for the star, but even that notion is loaded with liberal condescension. Furthermore, this imbalance eats away at the film’s moral center, leaving the audience little to care about amidst all the superficial gloss. When the epilogue finally brings these two characters together in a surprisingly collaborative manner, there is a slight subversion of the lackadaisical moral shadings that have come before, but it’s probably too subtle and too late for it to make much impact on most viewers.



Jeremy Heilman