Damn, it should feel good to be a ‘Gangster’

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 Michael Mann remains the undisputed king of the symbiotic relationship between cops and criminals. In two of his best flicks — the Robert DeNiro/Al Pacino epic “Heat” and Hannibal Lecter thriller “Manhunter” — the director realizes the co-dependency of these chosen professions and the lives of those who enlist in them. Cops are fueled by the thrill of the hunt, slowly gathering puzzle pieces until their targets are clear in the crosshairs; and criminals’ egos are fed to gluttonous levels when they elude their potential captors and strut the streets with mock-bravado.

Director Ridley Scott attempts to turn the “Heat” up in his latest “American Gangster,” studying the rise of real-life Detective Richie Roberts (played by Russel Crowe) and drug runner Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington).

And while the performances, style and and tone are equally impressive, the film does not gel into its sprawling epic aspirations that merit a nearly three-hour run time.

If any blame is placed for its shortcomings, it would land on the shoulders of screenwriter Steven Zallian, a scribe known for pedantic heights (“Schindler’s List,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer”) and sketchy sleights (“A Civil Action,” “All the King’s Men”). He shifts scenes that promise to delve deeper into the lives of the leads, only to punctuate them with repetitive scenarios of double-crosses, taunting tirades and underworld antics witnessed before in dozens of other crime dramas.

There is an ever-so-vague connection he and director Scott attempt to make between their story and the events taking place in Vietnam during the early 70s when the film takes place. But the war abroad is mostly relegated to grainy television clips that will most likely be lost on the average viewer.

Lucas’ life was, quite literally, a Bumpy one. For he was raised under the dirty wings on legendary gangster “Bumpy” Johnson (briefly played by Clarence Willimas III). After Johnson suffers a heart attack, Lucas takes it upon himself to fill the role of this urban Robin Hood, who is really robbin’ the hood. For he is feeding its crippling heroine addiction and shaking down local establishments while “giving back” to the community and his family.

Roberts, meanwhile, channels his inner Serpico and serves as the only unblemished badge in a city of crooked law enforcers. But even this proclivity for professional perfection has a price tag – in the form of a neglected wife and kid.

During the couple’s divorce hearing, Richie’s wife (played by Carla Gugino) scolds him for being no better than the on-the-take officers, for he is criminally absent in their lives. It’s a powerful little scene and one wishes we knew more about their relationship to give it more heft.

Roberts is considered a leper of the precinct, after refusing to skim off a $1 million bust and turning on a partner who fell in too deep with the smack crowd. He is assigned to a new federal anti-drug unit and is tasked with dismantling the city’s narcotic hierarchy where Lucas is perched atop, beginning to preen and flaunt his opiate-fueled wealth.

Crowe and Washington are expectedly impressive, with the former ironically getting the meatier role as a conflicted cop weaving through corruption both in the streets and in the office. As the chief heavy, one might expect Washington to bring “Training Day”-style histrionics to the proceedings, but is at times subdued to the point of being inert.

It is Josh Brolin, as a venal New York City officer who shaves more than his share of the local trafficking, who is the film’s true standout. His thick frame resembling a skin-covered cinder block, Brolin’s thuggish officer proves a menace to both Lucas and Roberts in their attempts at success, and takes a masochistic delight in taunting both of them.

The film could have used more of his brutishness, especially considering its rather boastful title. And considering the film had testosterone for every pore – what with Maximus squaring off against Malcolm X – to have it deliver anything less is criminal.

~ by usesoapfilm on November 5, 2007.

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