097: American Gangster

This is the seventeenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

I think I have it figured out by now. I tend to watch long movies, many of them by Ridley Scott, in stints. I’ll watch thirty minutes or an hour and then I to take a break or watch something else. This is not because the movies aren’t interesting. No, absolutely not. It is because they have the tendency to be so dense and detailed that they more resemble a book than a movie. I don’t read a book in one sitting, so why should I have to do that with a movie? This may be sacrilegious to some, but that doesn’t really concern me.

American Gangster is a movie that fits the above described category perfectly. It is an incredibly dense crime drama about self-made man Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the man who desperately wants to put him behind bars. It is the ’70s and Lucas inherits the keys to his mentor’s criminal empire. Instead of just taking over he decides to do things differently. He handles his business for what it is: business. That means providing a better product for a better price. He even travels to the deep jungles of Thailand to secure his drug deliveries in person, an action that earns him a lot of respect. Back home he takes care of business and he takes care of his family. He employs a lot of his family and moves his mother into a huge mansion. There is something charming about Frank that makes him irresistible and that something also covers up a ruthless side to him. A comparison can be made between Lucas and Nicolas Cage’s Roy in Matchstick Men, both are charismatic criminals with a decent heart. Scott likes his bad guys with a few additional layers.

On the other side we find Richie Roberts, a pit bull detective who is resourceful and brutally honest. When he finds an enormous amount of untraceable money he decides to turn it in instead of splitting it among his fellow detectives. This doesn’t sit well with the others. Does Richie care about this? No, not in the least. He wants results, but doesn’t want them at the cost of his soul. He stumbles onto a case around mysteriously pure heroin that is flooding the streets of Harlem. Everybody is dumbfounded by the manner in which Frank Lucas conducts his business and it takes a lot of time for them to even consider Frank as the culprit. Essentially American Gangster is a perfectly executed game of cat and mouse.

Scott isn’t interested in passing judgement on his characters. He leaves that up to the viewers of his movies, to make up their mind whether or not Lucas is a total bad guy or not. He shows Lucas as a ruthless killer who doesn’t hesitate to execute someone in broad daylight at a crowded market, but he also takes care of his family and friends and, ruthless as he is, he is always courteous to his victims. When he sets someone on fire he fires a bullet into the head to put his victim out of his misery. How is that for being merciful. Washington is excellent as the ever charming and quiet Lucas. He internalizes a lot of the emotions to make them explode onto the screen with incredible force. It is one of his finest performances.

As brilliant as Scott portrays Lucas, he has a little more trouble with Crowe’s character. The character itself is fine. He is an upstanding guy who will do everything to get the job done. The way in which Scott and Steven Zaillian approach this is by making him the unwilling half in a divorce from his wife (Carla Gugino). It is the standard plot about the husband who has more pressing things to do at his job than at home, but unlike Lorraine Bracco in Someone to Watch Over Me, Gugino isn’t strong to make us think that this would be a problem for Crowe, leaving him without the drama to offset his tenacity at his job. This hurts the otherwise intense drama a little bit.

One of the most annoying things about Scott (at least to other film makers) directing his movie is that he makes it look so incredibly effortless. American Gangster is a movie that takes place over the course of several years and in several countries. He switches back and forth between the two major storylines as if it is the easiest thing to do as a director. As always, the movie looks impeccable. Scott may truly be one of the best directors we have alive today. His movies may not always be the best storywise, and often a bit overlong, but nothing can be said negatively about the way his movies look. From The Duellists to American Gangster (and now Prometheus), nobody comes close to his mastery of the medium.

American Gangster is an excellent movie that deserves to be devoured again and again. It displays great acting, great cinematography and great storytelling. Certainly one of Scott’s best works.

> IMDb


046: Safe House

When South Africa hosted the World Championship Soccer in 2010 a lot of criticism was directed at the excessive cost of the stadiums that were built for the event. Everybody was curious how the organizers were going to earn the money to actually pay for these structures. In the new action thriller Safe House we see at least one of the ways to do this: let Hollywood tape their movies in and around the stadiums… probably for a decent fee.

South Africa’s Cape Town is a prominent backdrop for Safe House, but in all fairness, this could have been any other city. In this town there is an apartment owned by the CIA. In this apartment sits an agent who looks at screens all day and waits for something exciting to happen. This agent is Matt Weston, played by Ryan Reynolds, a lowly agent who just doesn’t seem to catch a break, because he is chomping at the bit to do some real CIA work. When ex-CIA agent and internationally wanted criminal Tobin Frost, played by Denzel Washington, is brought to the safe house, Matt gets a little more than he bargained for. A gang of criminals wants Tobin and crashes the safe house. Matt manages to escape with Tobin and they start a road trip that will lead them to the inevitable showdown that will or will not claim the lives of one of these guys.

Sounds pretty snappy and interesting, right? Well, think again. While Safe House doesn’t lack car chases, foot chases, shout-outs and so forth, it still manages to be fairly boring. It is always strange to realize you fell asleep during one of the loudest car chases I have (not) seen this year. It is just that these action sequences all meld together. They end up being a blur intercut by only a few scenes that could be categorized as character exposition. That blur could also be attributed to the way Safe House is shot. It utilizes the same shaky-camera-really-up-close technique perfected, but never surpassed, in the Bourne movies. The result is a movie that cuts a lot between shots and loses its focus in the process.

The interesting stuff happens when Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds get to play off each other. There is an innocence to Reynolds that is endearing and when Washington says to him at gunpoint, “I only kill professionals.”, you really feel the inexperience of Reynolds’ Matt. On the other hand there is Washington who comes across as the hardened criminal he is, but it wouldn’t be Denzel is he didn’t add a layer or two to his character. He is just one of those actors that always delivers even if the material doesn’t really lend itself to that end. At one point in the movie Denzel’s Tobin seems to be really tired by all that is going on and he seems glad to hang up the reins for a while. That doesn’t mean Denzel isn’t bad-ass. He surely is. When he takes down the criminals you almost feel bad for them, because they didn’t really stand a chance.

Safe House can be added to action thrillers like Man on Fire, Unstoppable and Training Day, in which Denzel Washington plays the antagonist. In fact, Safe House is very similar to Training Day. You have the veteran taking the novice under his wing to show the new guy the ropes. The big difference between Training Day and Safe House is the fact that Denzel’s character this time around has some redeemable aspects to him. I was not a fan of Training Day and I think Denzel’s Oscar was a little odd, but I would recommend that movie over Safe House. Oh, and Reynolds is always dependable in my eyes.

> IMDb