Ridley Scott is still perhaps best known as a pioneer of trend-setting sci-fi (thanks to the one-two punch of 'ALIEN' and 'Blade Runner,' both classics), but in recent years he's become a jack-of-all-trades director on an apparent adrenaline high. Take a gander at Scott's oeuvre of the past decade, from 'Gladiator' (historical epic) to 'Hannibal' (horror), 'Matchstick Men' (comedy) to 'A Good Year' (romance), it's as if the famed lensman is trying to tackle every conceivable genre before the curtain falls on his career.
Now we have 'American Gangster,' Scott's attempt to direct his own 'Godfather' film, but one that ends up feeling more like warmed-over Coppola. In tackling the real-life tale of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, and the cop that put him away, Richie Roberts, Scott brings little new to the already-tired mob genre. 'American Gangster' is certainly a handsomely made film, and it's never less than entertaining, but at the risk of sounding cynical, it seems to have little point, except perhaps to try and win Scott his much-coveted Best Director Oscar.
Much criticism has been leveled at Steven Zallian's script, which reportedly plays fast and loose with the facts of the Lucas-Roberts saga, with even Lucas himself proclaiming in recent months that the movie is largely a work of Hollywood fiction. This film, "based on a story," certainly takes some liberties, with plenty of composited characters, fabricated scenes, and a glorification of Lucas that borders on the same camp lunacy Brian De Palma brought to his fictionalized Tony Montana in 'Scarface' twenty-five years ago. Like De Palma's overrated film, what 'American Gangster' ultimately lacks is verisimilitude, favoring (admittedly entertaining) bombast over the gritty reality it purports to depict.
Denzel Washington stars as crime boss Lucas, another of those ruthless, movie street thugs who develops his own warped sense of honor as he rules Harlem's chaotic drug underworld. As Lucas rises in power and influence over the course of the turbulent '70s, he becomes the prime target of outcast cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who sets out to bring down Lucas's multimillion dollar empire, even if it means battling corrupt forces within his own department. By the film's climax, Scott and Zallian have pumped the material up to the level of mythology, with a final confrontation between Lucas and Roberts that rivals 'Gladiator' in both violence and excess.
'American Gangster' was a sizable hit at the worldwide box office this past fall, and found particular appeal with urban audiences in America, largely due to Washington, whose Lucas is so ruthless he makes his Academy Award-winning part in 'Training Day' seem like a kid's game show host. This is a pandering star turn, however, with the subtle glee in Washington's performance playing like a wink to an audience that's paying to enjoy standard-issue mob-movie violence (fans of this subgenre of sadism will be pleased to know that Washington lights people on fire, smashes them with a piano, and blows out their brains, all with equal aplomb). Unfortunately, Scott is no Scorsese in orchestrating these scenes (or even a De Palma), and generates neither empathy for the victims nor illumination into the morality of the perpetrators. This is only perfunctory bloodletting, and coolly detached filmmaking.
If Washington is at least riveting to watch, Crowe actually feels miscast as Roberts -- he comes off as sad sack of a detective, one that's curiously uninteresting as the ostensible lead of the film. Crowe's performance is not helped by Zallian's hollow attempts to make Roberts an enigmatic anti-hero. The character's womanizing ultimately has no bearing on his obsession with taking down Lucas, and Crowe is actually starting to look a bit too old for the part -- one wonders why all these gorgeous young woman (the film delights as much in gratuitous female nudity as it does in crushed heads) continue to throw themselves at such an unkempt slob. Crowe's lethargy seems apparent in his listless performance, as if he's just plain bored with playing these type of parts -- where's the fire that fueled his Oscar-winning turn in 'Gladiator,' or his superior work in 'L.A. Confidential?'
Oddly, despite my considerable reservations towards 'American Gangster,' I'm actually going to recommend it for a rental. It's not 'The Godfather' or even 'The Departed,' but I suspect it's exactly the kind of movie that fans of the mob genre will want to see. Still, I remain disappointed. The rise and fall of Frank Lucas should have been a blockbuster cinematic epic, and had Scott actually shown a genuine passion for the story (rather than merely a desire to make a mob pic), it could have ranked as a new classic on the level of 'GoodFellas.' Instead, it barely passes muster as an overinflated, overrated piece of Hollywood hokum.
'American Gangster' on Blu-ray boasts a number of improvements versus the HD DVD version of the film, the first being that Universal has included both the 156-minute theatrical version and the 176-minute extended version (the HD DVD combo included only the theatrical cut with the extended cut on the flip side). Both are encoded in 1080p/VC-1 video (1.78:1, opened up from the theatrical 1.85:1) and easily accessed via seamless branching. (You can also toggle between the two during live playback by simply calling up the main menu.)
Both versions are sourced from the same master, and the effect is seamless -- I could detect no obvious visual differences between the footage of each version. The results are also identical in any perceivable way to the previous HD DVD. Befitting a new release, the source is clean as a whistle. Ridley Scott eschewed the more glossy look of some of his '80s and '90s pictures for 'American Gangster,' but this is still a slick enough image that you won't mistake it for Steven Soderbergh's 'Traffic.' Colors are not overly saturated and are far from bright, but the muted brown-and-blue palette is clean and consistent. Scott also utilizes a softer look for the film, so while certainly sharp, there is a bit more flatness than some might expect on a high-def presentation.
My only real gripe, however, is that contrast is somewhat lacking. While blacks are rock solid, the mid-range seems lethargic, and shadow delineation suffers. The image teeters on being too dark, and fine details often get lost in the darker areas of the image or in night scenes. However, detail and depth hold up as well as is possible, and closer shots in particular can look quite textured and impressive. The re-encode is also perfectly smooth, so I had no problems with artifacts. Even if I wasn't completely blown away with this transfer, 'American Gangster' remains satisfactory.
Universal continues to improve upon the HD DVD by offering up a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) versus the previous Dolby Digital-Plus (1.5mbps). The upgrade is in some areas significant, and others only marginal.
The biggest beneficiary is the surrounds. 'American Gangster' on HD DVD sounded front heavy, but in DTS-MA the rears are opened up noticeably if not exponentially. Discrete effects are more prominent and a bit louder in the mix, and slight gentle ambiance is now heard in scenes that were previously as quiet as a cricket. Score bleed could still have been improved, but overall the presence in the rear soundstage is more sustained and prominent.
The DTS-MA mix does not boost dynamic range much, however. The track is clearly louder at the outset, but otherwise it's mostly smoke and mirrors. The subwoofer still never kicks in as I expected, it supports the action admirably (particularly on some score "stingers," which have the most oomph of any element in the mix). The source is likewise clean, with smooth highs and strong dialogue reproduction -- I again had no volume balance issues. 'American Gangster' certainly gets an upgrade in DTS-MA, though not enough that I would add this Blu-ray to my pile of demo discs.
Notching up yet another win for the Blu-ray, Universal has outclassed the HD DVD version by including even more extras. All of the material from the three-disc DVD special edition are here, albeit still presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are accessible for all video-based materials.
'American Gangster' is Ridley Scott's hoped-for 'Godfather,' but it comes across as little more than second-rate Scorsese. It's an entertaining film, but largely derivative of other mob movies and has little new to say, either about its characters or organized crime. This much-anticipated Blu-ray edition, however, certainly trumps its HD DVD counterpart. Both the theatrical and extended cuts are offered, the audio is improved, and there are significantly more extras. Fans of 'American Gangster' should have no hesitation in picking up this Blu-ray.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.