Sometimes you finish watching a movie and wonder if it was nominated for an Oscar. While you may not always find a satisfactory answer and it feels a bit silly to want to justify your viewing experience by seeing if others felt the same way, it is nice to see that others, notably the Academy Awards, agree with you. And so it goes with American Gangster; while it wasn’t nominated for best film or best director, it did garner a couple nods and that is enough for me, because sometimes you just want the film to be heard of and it ultimately doesn’t matter if it wins its nominations as long as the general public goes to see it.
Of course American Gangster is in no real need of public exposure. With two of Hollywood’s finest backing the film as co-stars, it’s no real shocker that the film was as strong as it was. Based on the true story of gangster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and his rise to power and eventual incarceration and release, American Gangster follows both sides of the story: Lucas’s drug running side and the U.S. Governments attempt to find out where the drugs were coming from. From the government side comes Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a cop from New Jersey who may be one of the most loyal officers to ever work the force.
As with a lot of really excellent films, I have a hard time assembling my thoughts on them. While a film I disliked I could write a book about, a film like American Gangster becomes a lot harder to talk about. Even after seeing it twice (both the theatrical and unrated cuts), I still can’t collect my thoughts completely on the film, although my heads swimming with brief snippets that I took away from the film, ranging from the quiet moments with Frank and his mother or the shotgun firing finale that had you on the edge of your seat.
I think one of the strongest elements of American Gangster is its story. Not only is it superbly written, but the fact that all of this was based on a true story makes it even more incredible to witness. From the opening titles of Frank lighting someone on fire, kicking him over and unloading three bullets into his chest, you know that the film you’re about to watch is going to be great. Its little things like that added to the fact that my first time watching the film, a near three hour cut, went flying by in what seemed like less than two hours. It’s rare to find a film that doesn’t have you squirming in your seat after the second hour, but, consciously or unconsciously, you’ll find yourself creeping towards the edge on more than one occasion, thus allowing your body to shift positions, even if you aren’t aware of it.
The gritty realism of the films directing combined with the performances by the lead and even supporting actors make for a truly fascinating film. While I was distracted by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance at first (because I had only previously known him from Serenity [yes I’m mentioning that film in every review I can]), I quickly became so engrossed by everyone’s performances in the film that I eagerly awaited each new scene that was presented. Every character, whether it’s the leads of Lucas and Richie or the secondary characters of Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) or Cuba Gooding Jr.’s small but strong role as Nicky Barnes. The whole film is just filled with wall to wall performances that will blow you away. It truly is one of 2007’s superbly cast and acted movies.
Also worth mentioning about the film is its score, which on more than one occasion added a lot of punch to some scenes, such as Frank’s street killing that took his brothers by surprise. There’s a whole DVD extra that goes into the music composed and used in the film and it’s really wonderful just how great it all matches up. I will say that one piece of music was accompanied by so many flashing lights in the movie that I’m pretty sure it would have given people seizures had it lasted too much longer. Not necessarily a negative factor, but definitely a distracting one.
While there’s plenty of sex, drugs and nudity thrown around in the film, it’s nothing that will really mark it as “filthy” by someone. It is, after all, a true story and one that is almost incredulous in nature. The drug use, while hard to watch at times, provides a necessary look into the world that Frank helped bolster in New York. Even though we know that the selling of drugs is morally wrong, we never quite develop a hatred toward Frank—his justification of selling a product that the public wants helps blur the line between right and wrong in the film and Frank’s eventual aiding of Richie in the end turned out to be one of the strongest sequences in the film.
Since I’m on the topic of Frank and Richie, I feel compelled to mention how much their relationship in the end surprised me. Richie’s passing of the BAR exam and eventually representing Frank to get his sentence reduced was a great little turn of events and while we didn’t see too much of their relationship after Frank got out of jail, it was a really strong element to end the film on.
There is so much about American Gangster that I haven’t said but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself. There aren’t any really big twists and turns to take during the course of the film, as a viewer, simply because we know what the final outcome will be. The excitement for the film, however, comes from waiting to see how the events transpire and who gets taken down and who doesn’t. It is such an superbly crafted film, both from a writing, visual and directing standpoint that I don’t think we’ll see anything quite like this again in American cinema for a long while. Ridley Scott produced and directed one hell of a film with American Gangster and I’m sure it’s one that will rake in the awards and rack up the DVD sales, as it so rightly deserves. Highly Recommended.
If you didn’t think American Gangster was absolutely awesome, then Universal Home Entertainment would like to disagree with you. Not only does the film come, by default, in a two disc release that is packed with extras, but a three disc set exists as well, for those of you who just can’t get enough. For this review I’ll be tackling the three disc edition, which features the theatrical and extended and unrated cut of the film. For this three disc collector’s edition we get the film in a handsome and sturdy black cardboard case with a silver foil border on the front with embossed printing. Inside the case, which opens like a door, you’ll find a red ribbon that helps lift up the included booklet as well as the three disc set itself.
The booklet is full of photos from the film as well as words about the real life history the film is based off of and the production of the film itself. It’s a nice little booklet that makes this three-disc set feel all the more worth it. Moving onto the discs themselves, which are packed into two digi-paks—a dual layer tray and a single layer. Behind them is a darkened skyline of New York City with the film’s title above it. The included digi-pak trays are no bigger than your standard DVD case, but when comparing the entire set to a standard DVD you’ll find it’s about half an inch taller. The only drawback to this casing is that the front flap that opens, with quotes from Lucas and Roberts on the interior, is so heavy that it eventually pulls apart the binding inside the case. With only a few opening and closings of the case, I found my case already splitting apart, as the cardboard that held it together was no match for the heavy block attached to the flap.
The menu system starts out right away with the option to watch either the theatrical or extended version of the film. My DVD player must have issues with seamless branching, as it read the run time for the three hour cut as that of the theatrical cut. I did re-watch the theatrical version just to be sure and, like I thought, my DVD player just had the wrong time read out. Very curious—never seen it act that way before on a seamless branch. Even if the runtime was off, the seamless branching wasn’t—it was done so perfectly that you didn’t notice a pause or stutter in any instance. One of the finest branching attempts I’ve seen.
From a visual and aural standpoint, American Gangster was superb. The 5.1 took full effect in several instances in the film and the clarity level made for some gut wrenching bone crunching sound effects in the film. The video was a bit on the compressed side in some instances and the black levels could’ve been a bit stronger, but other than that it was a really well done transfer. I think it really depends on the levels your TV is set at; I noticed a few more instances of blocking in darker areas on a brighter set than I did on my own set, which I have set to be a bit darker.
The differences between the theatrical and extended cuts are minor, although near twenty minutes of new footage is put in. I noticed some quick elements here and there that were added, such as spurts of dialogue and at other times whole new scenes, such as Robert’s scouting out the church that they set up base in to find out who was bringing drugs into the U.S. The scenes cut were obviously done so for time, but it’s nice to see them thrown in—they didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the film at all and they all felt completely necessary. I was actually surprised that some things were left out, as they felt so natural.
Moving onto the extras we get two discs that are packed. First up is the full length commentary (theatrical cut only) with director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian. As with all of Scott’s commentaries, he makes for a highly entertaining and eventual track that is wall to wall with information. There are a few dry periods here and there, but for the most part Scott and Zaillian provide a great track.
Moving onto the second disc we get a pair of deleted scenes (an alternate opening that was used at the end of the films credits and a completely removed sequence of Frank and Eva’s Wedding) that run a scant 3:44. The meat of this second disc, however, comes in the form of “Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster”, which runs a stunning hour and eighteen minutes. The making-of is divided into five sections, each covering a specific element of the film. All of the segments (Tru Blu: The Real Story, Killer Threads: Costumes, Crime War: Production, Into the Arena: Ali vs. Frazier, Rhythm of the Street: Sound, Music and Editing) are selectable from the menu, so you don’t have to skipping through the entire documentary, although it’s a lot easier to just sit back and watch them all in one go. Every minute of these extras are as interesting as the film itself and the accompanying words from the cast and crew make it all that much more enjoyable.
Next we have another round of featurettes, although this time much shorter. “Case Files” (24:54) collects a lot of straight up behind-the-scenes footage that follows their topic with little to no narration. It’s simply a camera guy filming what’s going on. First is “Script Meeting” which has the real life Richie Roberts talking with Scott one to one about the story. “Heroin Test Show & Tell” has Scott deciding which type of technique to use to show the audience how pure Frank’s heroin is. Finally we have “Setting Up the Takedown” which seems to start as abruptly as it begins, with a simple fadeout as the cameraman stops filming.
Moving onto the third and final disc of this set we find “Hip-Hop Infusion Featuring Common and T.I.” (5:12) and gives a glimpse into the rappers who were cast as Frank’s family in this film. I honestly had no idea there were even that many rappers in the film to begin with (a few looked familiar, but not being a fan of rap kind of limited my knowledge as to who to look for) and this short little extra provides a nice glimpse into it all. “BET Special Making of American Gangster” (18:02) seems a bit unnecessary after the hour long documentary on the second disc. There are a few new bits to be seen here, but there’s nothing in this extra that can’t be gleaned from the others documenting the film. “Dateline NBC: American Gangster First Look” (21:29) features cast and crew interviews as well, although the interview with Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington by Matt Lauer makes for an entertaining watch and is worth watching for that alone. Music videos by Ghostface Killah and Jay-Z are included as well and the films theatrical trailer wraps up this third discs DVD extras. But wait—while we’re out of DVD extras, there is a digital copy of the film included in copy protected WMV format.
Overall this three-disc edition of American Gangster will be the ultimate edition for the film buff to pick up, although average movie goers may want to pick up the two disc edition which has all the same content as the first two discs of this three-disc edition. It’s really up to you, but I think both editions will more than suffice your appetite after viewing this film, though the third disc does have a bit more repeated content to it in terms of information. Still, either way you cut it, it’s an incredibly powerful film that has hours of bonus features to absorb to help you further understand and appreciate the movie. Either way you cut it, American Gangster is an absolutely awesome film to watch. Highly Recommended.
American Gangster arrives on DVD and HD-DVD on February 19th.