An epic (even moreso at nearly three hours on this extended edition) crime drama from director Ridley Scott, "American Gangster" is based upon the story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a man who rose to power in '60's Manhattan as a heroin kingpin, managing to be especially successful due to his philosophy of not going through middlemen and instead going straight to sources in other countries.
As the picture opens, Frank is working for famed gangster Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). However, just as Bumpy is discussing his dismay at the way that personal service has gone out of style and stores have dropped the middleman, Bumpy has a heart attack in the middle of an electronics store. At Bumpy's funeral, he is determined to not let those who owed Bumpy get away without paying.
Shortly after, he decides to take Bumpy's philosophy of not using a middleman to get into the drug trade, heading to such far-off places as the jungles of Thailand to forge relationships with drug sources instead of buying through local syndicates. He beat his competition at their own game by selling higher quality drugs at a lower price. He eventually brings his family into the operation, and runs his business like some sort of horrific Fortune 500 company, becoming furious about another dealer (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who was cutting up his dope, because cutting up Frank's particular brand of dope was essentially ruining his "brand name" (Frank's heroin was labeled as Blue Magic.) Frank ran the heroin into the US using military planes.
Meanwhile, New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is seeing the effects of the drug trade in his own hometown and in his partner, who gets in too deep. Meanwhile, the Government has started to wage a war on the drug trade, and Richie - who's gained a reputation of honesty, although his wife (Carla Gugino) doesn't agree with that portrayal - is recruited to start up his own squad - a squad meant simply to go after the biggest suppliers. A task that, not surprisingly, quickly brings him up against Lucas, whose power and viciousness continues to grow. But, as remarkable a businessman as Frank was, it was only a matter of time before his empire was big enough that he couldn't hide anymore.
Washington's performance is certainly nothing short of remarkable, as he does a remarkable job at showing Frank's calm exterior and ability to be coldly brutal. Crowe doesn't make as much of an impression, although he's certainly not bad in the role. It's simply the character, which seems rather flatly presented. Once things are set in motion and Roberts sets his sights on Washington's character, then Crowe's performance starts to amp up, but he is still not as much of a factor for half the movie.
The film functions as a solid procedural, looking into the details of how Lucas was able to intelligently grow a business into an empire. Only, this happened to be an empire that sold a product whose only end result was tragedy. Washington's powerhouse performance is what carries the film, as the intensity of the performance certainly adds to the tension.
What doesn't work as well is the fact that the Crowe and Washington characters are kept apart for the majority of the movie and, while they may have been kept apart in real life while Roberts searched for who was putting the product out on the streets, in the film the delay in the battle of wits between the two does result in the picture seeming more low-key at times than it otherwise would. The scenes toward the end when the Washington and Crowe characters finally face off against one another crackle, and it's too bad that there weren't more of them. Ruby Dee and Josh Brolin offer very good supporting performances, as well.
Technically, the picture is about as strong as can be expected. Production design is stellar, as is the cinematography from Harris Savides ("Gerry"). The film's attempt to get the look of the time period down is impressive, and consistently so.
Overall, the picture is often powerful, intense and hard-edged, with mostly solid performances. However, while it is consistently involving, it is not quite consistently hard-hitting. Scott presents the events of the film in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way, which results in the picture having an enjoyably gritty feel, but the film's intensity can be somewhat inconsistent. Still, some concerns aside, this is still another very good effort from famed director Scott.
This DVD edition offers both the original theatrical release, as well as the extended cut of the picture, which runs about 18 minutes longer. How the extended cut was assembled is not discussed, and the commentary from the director and writer is only on the theatrical cut. One of the differences is the ending. I didn't particularly care for the ending on the theatrical cut, which, while maybe not inaccurate, feels rather off in terms of tone and just doesn't have the impact (Frank gets out of prison and Richie shows him how things have changed) that I think it was trying for.
VIDEO: "American Gangster" is presented by Universal in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The gritty look of the picture does come through quite well on this mostly stellar DVD presentation. Sharpness and detail are usually solid, although the picture never appeared crystal clear (although this may have been an intentional element of the cinematography.) Some minor grain was occasionally seen (although again, likely an intentional element), but no print flaws were spotted. Some light edge enhancement was seen in a few scenes, but no artifacting or other issues were spotted. Colors looked muted, although one can only guess this was by intent.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn't particularly aggressive, but it's perfectly fine for the material. Surrounds are used smartly to offer some enjoyable ambience that adds nicely to the scenes. The rear speakers also offer reinforcement of the score and occasionally, more noticable sound effects. Audio quality is fine, with punchy sound effects and crisp, natural-sounding dialogue.
EXTRAS: Included is an excellent audio commentary from director Ridley Scott and writer Steve Zaillian. Anyone who's familiar with Scott's commentaries will find a discussion of similarly high quality here - it's a deeply informative and insightful track that provides a terrifc overview of how the epic project was pulled together - from working with the actors to locations to production design to visuals.
"Fallen Empire" is a feature-length "making of" documentary that offers thoughts from the real Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas, as well as Scott, producer Brian Grazer and others. The first chunk of the documentary revolves around the history of Roberts and Lucas, as well as how the two eventually became friends after Lucas helped Roberts go after a heavily corrupt police force. From there, we go into looks at the film's costume design, history of the project (it was originally going to be directed by Antoine Fuqua until the studio pulled the plug a few weeks before the film was to start), the locations, working with Ridley Scott, production design and more.
Aside from "Fallen Empire", the second disc has a pair of deleted scenes and three "Case Files", which are shorter "behind-the-scenes" pieces. These include: "Heroin - Show and Tell", "Script Meeting" and "Setting Up the Takedown". "Script Meeting" sees Scott, Roberts, Zaillian and Branco Lustig going over the latest script draft. "Heroin - Show and Tell" sees Scott discussing with the property master about how to portray the drug in the movie and finally, "Setting Up the Takedown" is a look at a major sequence towards the end. Each of the three pieces run about 7-8 min.
Final Thoughts: While it will not stand as one of the genre's best films, "American Gangster" still remains compelling throughout and offers another powerful performance from Denzel Washington. The DVD edition offers fine audio/video quality, as well as a solid set of bonus features. Recommended.
The Film B+