Ridley Scott canâ’t find the ending that American Gangster deserves
by Mike Gibson
Ridley Scottâ’s latest epic, American Gangster, offers two hours of absorbing, visceral, character-driven filmmaking, chronicling the meteoric rise (circa 1970) of Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), and the concurrent strivings of his dogged police pursuer, Jersey street-cop-turned-special narcotics-investigator Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). The rub is that the film is a shade over two-and-a-half hours long, and the 38-minute closing stanza brings the careful, crafted build-up to a crashing, ill-conceived, and distinctly unsatisfying end.
Gangster is â“based on a true story,â” and by most accounts the film accurately represents the most essential facts of the case: Lucas was indeed an exceptionally enterprising son of the deep South who moved to New York City, where he was mentored under the wing of Harlemâ’s longtime gangster/patron saint Ellsworth â“Bumpyâ” Johnson (Clarence Williams III). Roberts, too, was a real-life hero cop (and later, a prosecutor) who almost single-handedly brought down Lucasâ’ impressively-wrought grassroots narcotics empire.
In a smooth, measured performance, Washington plays Lucas as a man with many admirable qualitiesâ"heâ’s smart and courageous, and unwaveringly devoted to familyâ"who chooses to harness them in the service of building the biggest and most socially destructive drug ring in New York history. Through sheer moxie, Lucas forges his own direct heroin connection with a deposed military officer in the jungles of Vietnam, using the coffins of slain servicemen to smuggle pure product.
Croweâ’s Roberts is both his polar opposite and a sort of kindred spirit, a resolutely ethical cop who loses his wife and his child due to his dissolute womanizing. We might suppose that these are two men who live according to separate halves of the same code of ethics.
For most of the movie, the balance of the two parallel story lines is nearly perfect. Frank is ever the magnetic center of the film, and Washington shrewdly never lets us get past our instinct to likeâ"or at least to admireâ"him, even when his most vicious instincts come to the fore. Robertsâ’ story is slower-pacedâ"sometimes the details of his marital tribulations threaten to become tediousâ"but still affecting. Heâ’s a bit of a schlub, but also a devoted bulldog of a cop whose abundant street smarts are belied by his oafish personal choices.
But perhaps all the careful buildup of these two very different lives inhabited by two strangely similar men is too careful. Because when Gangster hits the two-hour mark, we can almost sense a certain panic on director Scottâ’s part, as if he suddenly realizes heâ’s broken into long-form territory, with scarcely an ending in sight. And where Gangster had previously been scrupulous, savoring, full of riveting detail, it suddenly becomes frantic and haphazard in its sudden quest for a satisfactory conclusion.
Most disappointing is the obligatory verbal showdown between Frank and Richie, the cat-and-mouse confrontation that is a seeming sine qua non of all movies that feature dogged pursuer and indomitable pursuee (think Pacino and De Niro in Heat, a lesser film with a better ending). Rather than a take-no-quarter tete a tete, their exchange comes off more as a hastily-conceived pastiche of several previous big-screen face-offs, as if screenwriter Steve Zaillian were racing against the clock to include all of the applicable clichÃ©s.
American Gangster is a difficult film to recommend, given the nigh-unconscionable sloppiness of its final act. It is at least as difficult not to recommend it, so enveloping and powerfully wrought are the first 120 minutes of its running time. For a film buff, Gangsterâ’s greatest crime is Ridley Scottâ’s failure to follow through with a similarly powerful denouement.
Movie Guru Rating:
Most filmgoers discovered director Gus Van Sant with Drugstore Cowboy, or maybe even Good Will Hunting, but the reason he got to make those movies is 1985â’s Mala Noche. While the film occupies a fairly dim corner of his filmography today, few directors of Van Santâ’s generation can claim such an accomplished and indelible feature debut. It certainly doesnâ’t deserve its obscurity, and a gorgeous new Criterion Collection DVD release should help.
The plot is typical â’80s-indie, skeletal and underachieving: Scruffy bohemian Walt (Tim Streeter) becomes obsessed with Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a long-haired Mexican teen who hangs around the Portland, Ore., liquor store where Walt works. Walt falls hard, literally worshipping at Johnnyâ’s feet, but the boy rebuffs him and disappears, leaving his fellow illegal Roberto, a.k.a. Pepper (Ray Monge), stranded and alone. Walt and Roberto form an uneasy relationship, Johnny eventually reappears, and things end about the way they probably would have anyway.
Low-budget, meandering, and flush with amateur performances, Mala Noche nonetheless entrances. In part, thatâ’s down to Streeter, who embodies Waltâ’s love as an act of kindness as well as lust. (IMDb lists an episode of 21 Jump Street for him after this, then nothing, which seems like a loss.) But mostly, Mala Noche lingers in the mind thanks to Van Santâ’s idiosyncratic vision and John J. Campbellâ’s stunning high-contrast black-and-white cinematography. Together, they limn an everyday world of rainy streets and crappy late-night bedrooms that is, at turns, as strange as Eraserhead and as casually beautiful as Breathless. Never before available on VHS or disc, Van Santâ’s debut joins the work of Edward Hopper and Weegee in the canon of great depictions of the lonely American night. â" Lee Gardner
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