LoveFilm Chronicles: American Gangster

Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.

Our first entry? Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, the 2007 crime biopic starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and honestly the whims of the computer have not been kind to us today. It would be great if we could start with a propulsive opening entry to this series, with a film that inspires, good or bad, something stirring within. American Gangster is unfortunately no such film, it’s the yearly period biopic with a stunning cast that wins a bunch of Oscars but is immediately forgotten. It hits every beat with no more or less than is required. It whelms.

But thankfully there’s more to say about it than that, the last thing I want to be is dismissive, and I’m determined to make this series a good one. Here we go!

American Gangster (2007)

In the best and final shot in the film, Frank Lucas (Washington) takes his first steps outside prison in fifteen years. The gate rolls down behind him, and he stands still on the pavement, taking in this world alien to him. A car drives past blaring Public Enemy, and Frank can do nothing but look on, framed flat against the prison walls behind him, a man out of time.

Thematically, American Gangster functions as a kind of cliffnotes The Wire, in which the capitalist machinations of the drug trade are used as metaphor to get to the heart of American identity. And whilst it's certainly not ineffective at that, as Lucas stands on the sidewalk, new words on old walls, new music on old music, it becomes clear where American Gangster excels, where American Gangster had always excelled: as a tone piece celebrating a place and time long since gone.

Because the early 70s of American Gangster is a wonderful place to spend an hour or two. It combines a rugged, practical production design with the handheld, grainy digital photography giving the whole film a slightly toned down, Michael Mann feel. The film simply revels in its journey through cinematic reference points; the fragile warmth of the gangster family around the table at thanksgiving, the run-down claustrophobia of a z-tier office for the police task force that nobody wants. It's a loving tour through scenes seen a thousand times before, a painstaking effort to transport the audience back to a world that almost certainly never existed in reality, but certainly existed in cinema, and that's real enough for this "true story."

So it's a shame that the words coming out of these characters mouths are so bland and on the nose. For the most part, people speak in monologues, baldly expositing theme to the audience, which wouldn't be a problem if it didn't undercut the subtleties of its cinematic world. Much like Scott's Prometheus, American Gangster forgoes the nuances of character work in order to stress the importance of the points it strains so hard to make. In so doing, it strips this beautiful world of its humanity, and not even the (frankly amazing) cast can bring it back.

Make no mistake, American Gangster is not even close to the clinical disaster of Prometheus. Denzel brings the charisma in his portrayal of Lucas, a man whose moral certainty gives way to extreme and unthinkable cruelty when the world doesn't co-operate with his vision. He's out to restore the Harlem he loves, the Harlem long presided over by Bumpy, a crime lord with a respect for community and family that seems to be lost in this modern, crueler America. The game done changed.

Russell Crowe is at peak Russell Crowe as Richie Richards, the dishonest honest cop, a man who will turn over his friends on principle but won't take the time to see his son on the weekends. At one point he yells "follow the money!" in reference to the car in front of them with the money in it; it's pretty great. Richie and Frank don't meet until the final ten minutes of the film, but are continually positioned as equals, desperate men trapped in broken systems, their attempts to affect any change squandered by their sheer individual smallness.

It would be profound if it wasn't so rote; American Gangster's cinematic imitation combines decades old inspiration with modern photography to create a nostalgic and wistful atmosphere, but it can't achieve the same nuance in its narrative. Like its protagonists, the film's singular focus is its downfall, and in its dogged attempts to pursue a righteous cause it ends up pushing people away.

Then the credits roll, and we're left with Frank Lucas on the sidewalk, in the 90s. The world I've just spent two and a half hours in has gone, lost to time, and that tragedy in and of itself renders concerns about thematic potency trivial. The film's flaws fade into the background, and I and it reach an understanding, just as Frank and Richie do in their final meeting. Maybe we're not at odds at all. Maybe we never were.