I can’t be bothered to properly review the movies I see. It takes too much time and too much thought, and if I go on for more than three or four paragraphs, it becomes painfully evident that I’m no Pauline Kael. Then again, I always need something to blog about. So here are a few thoughts on American Gangster, which I saw last night in the company of the brunette, a bottle of wine and a platter of hors d’oeuvres, ensconced in a luxurious balcony loveseat at the 13th Street Warren Theatre here in Wichita. Let me tell you, even crappy movies are good under those optimal conditions.
Fortunately, American Gangster is not a crappy movie. (I hereby grant Universal permission to use the preceding sentence in promotional materials.) Denzel Washington plays real-life heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, who created his drug empire the American way: by eliminating the middle man. Lucas personally met growers in Thailand and arranged to have 100 percent pure heroin shipped back to the states on military flights returning from Vietnam. Russell Crowe plays the incorruptible NYC cop who ultimately brings Lucas down.
Both these guys deliver the sort of nuanced, bravura performances you’d expect, and you’ll be hearing their names come Oscar time. But Washington owns this movie. He’d be watchable in a Depends commercial; here, the character seems one he was born to play: an utterly ruthless man convinced of his own integrity, heedless of the ravages his business wreaks on his community and, ultimately, his family.
I’m guessing Ridley Scott will be nominated for his direction, too. He creates a shabby, ’70s New York City that is just as much a character in the film as the two stars. From the grimy streets to the massive Detroit sedans that plied them, New York hasn’t looked so authentically seedy since Taxi Driver. (That applies to the hairstyles and the clothes, too.) This is not an overly violent film, given the subject matter, but one explosive set piece toward the end of the film is just stunning. Believe me, you’ll know it when you see it.
Maybe the biggest compliment I can give American Gangster is this: It’s close to three hours long, but it feels like about 90 minutes. I was actually sorry when it ended. I’ve grown tired of overlong movies, but I never once looked at my watch and still can’t think of a scene I’d want cut.
Bottom line, then: Four stars out of four, five out of five. Best seen from the balcony. Goes well with red wine, sipped at a moderate pace. Make sure you hit the restroom before taking your seat. You won’t want to get up during the movie.