Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

American Gangster (18)

Two great actors and a director on top form make this back-to-basics 1970s- style thriller one not to be missed, says Noel McAdam

(18, 157 mins) Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin

They cost each other their marriages ... Crusader cop Ritchie Roberts' dogged pursuit of New York's first black 'mafia' kingpin saw him finally agree to wife Laurie taking off with their child.

Years later, after conviction, kingpin Frank Lucas was left by his long-time partner in one of those odd balancing acts which fate throws up from time to time.

Both were men to whom family meant everything, yet they lost the very thing they loved the most.

Ridley Scott's ripped-from- real-life gangsta movie bears comparison with the past glories of Serpico, Scarface and Goodfellas.

But that quite considerable recommendation is also the movie's main problem: too often it feels like something you've seen before.

The deja vu is more than compensated for, however, by a pair of outstanding performances from Washington and Crowe.

And there is a superb soundtrack of soul and r'n'b, much of it well placed to counterpoint and underpin narrative themes, such as Only The Strong Survive and Across 110th Street - which itself became a theme for a 1970s movie about ordinary street gangsters trying to muscle in on mafia turf.

It is also the third team-up for Scott and Crowe, seven years after the iconic Gladiator but just two from their risible French odyssey A Good Year.

Crowe's feat (sorry) has been to manage to make that particular nonsense fade against the backdrop of Master and Commander, Cinderella Man and, most recently, the stunning James Mangold remake of the classic western 3.10 to Yuma.

All these respective genres - gangster, detective, western - have their deeply embedded cliches; the trick is to freshen them up. And, for the most part, Scott does.

But like Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in another heavily-referenced cops and robbers confrontation, Heat, Roberts and Lucas live entirely separate lives, even unaware of each other, for quite a chunk of the movie.

Crowe finally spies his nemesis, fur coat and all, on the VIP carpet at a fight game.

Washington, the star more in need of a hit following the below-par remake of Manchurian Candidate, Out of Time and the ignominy of the threshold of a movie going straight to DVD, is more than a match for Crowe.

Dapper Denzel pitches the part of Lucas somewhere between the evil cop Alonzo he played in Training Day and his career-best portrayal of Easy Rawlins in the 1995 film of Walter Mosley's yarn Devil in a Blue Dress.

Crowe is, like Pacino in Serpico, the cop-who-can't-be-corrupted. We're told (repeatedly) that he handed back a million in unmarked notes. And he makes the switch from prosecution to defense lawyer.

Set in the 1970s, Scott seems to have chosen to shoot in the style of the 1970s: dead straight, face-on, no hidden angles or agenda. Which may also explain why the fairly flawless production values and attention to detail just fall short of full marks. At moments you have to try too hard to care.

Lucas had been a driver who was handed a criminal empire when his boss dies. He has learned a lot. Soon he is putting top-quality drugs on the streets for half the price. He has gone deep into the jungle and set up a chain to smuggle smack into the country in the coffins of soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.

It is a solid film, but it could have been spectacular. Sometimes Scott's direction is too slick and some of the lines from screenwriter Steve Zaillian (who wrote Gangs of New York and All The Kings Men) are just too clunky.

Like Lucas saying: "See, ya are what ya are in this world. That's either one of two things: Either you're somebody, or you ain't nobody." And who said philosophy was dead?

But there are good script moments too, like when Lucas rolls over rival protection boss Dominic Cattano (a rare return to mainstream movies for a grown- huge Armand Assante) and quips: "He's the hired help now".

There are some glaring mistakes, such as a celebrity couples luminary listing circa 1970 which includes Diane Keaton and Woody Allen: across a street, in a scene set in 1968, is an advert for the internet. But that's nit-picking.

And it could have been so much worse. In fact, the film can hold its head high. And Scott deserves four stars for that incredibly cheeky title alone.

Now showing at cinemas across Northern Ireland.

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