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' is one of the most highly-anticipated HD DVD titles in ages, and all eyes are on Universal to see if they’ll pull off an A-list release at this very crucial juncture for the format, which is why this HD DVD/DVD combo release is such a letdown. Though hardly bare-bones, Universal has made a number of surprising decisions in packaging the film, and in every respect -- video, audio, and extras -- this is far from the knock out HD DVD it could have been.
The first strike for 'American Gangster' is that Universal has not included the extended cut of the film on the HD side of the disc. You'll only find the 156-minute theatrical version in high-def, while the standard-def flip gets the 176-minute version, including 20 minutes of additional footage. It's an odd omission -- why not give fans the extended cut, or better yet, both versions via seamless branching?
That said, this 1080p/VC-1 encode (framed at 1.78:1, slightly opened up versus the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio) is very nice in its own right. 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 smooth. 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. This is also a very smooth VC-1 encode, so I had no problems with artifacts. Even if I wasn't completely blown away with this transfer, 'American Gangster' still left me quite satisfied.
Along with the lack of an extended cut, the other startling downgrade on this HD DVD of 'American Gangster' is the absence of any high-res audio option. Not sure what they’re smokin' over at the studio, but this is the kind of premiere high-def release that cries out for a Dolby TrueHD track. Instead, we get lowly Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround (at 1.5mbps), in both English and French (subtitle options are also included for both languages). It's a perfectly fine, perfectly respectable audio presentation, but this is the one film where diehard HD DVD fans will demand more.
Even for a Dolby Digital-Plus track, 'American Gangster' sounds front heavy. I was disappointed with how little sound of any variety emanates from the rear speakers. Discrete effects are minimal, score bleed meager, and ditto for sustained atmosphere -- it's like Ridley Scott made a film about the '70s as if it was produced in the '70s.
However, for what is essentially a stereo mix with a bit of a fluff in the rears, 'American Gangster' sounds perfectly fine. Dynamic range is wide if not terribly expansive. The subwoofer never kicked in like I hoped, but 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 had no volume balance issues. Make no mistake, 'American Gangster' sounds pretty good -- it’s just not great.
Adding another strike against this HD DVD is the fact that Universal has included only a portion of the supplemental material found on the two-disc DVD edition of 'American Gangster' (hitting stores day-and-date). The studio usually ports over all the goodies on their HD DVD releases, so why they've failed to do so with one of their biggest releases in months is a mystery. What we're left with is a decent package, but it still feels like an advertisement for a true special edition. (All the bonus features are formatted in 16:9 but encoded at 480p/i/MPEG-2 only. There are no subtitle options on any of the extras.)
'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 HD DVD felt like a middle-of-the-road effort to me as well. Where's the extended cut of the film? The high-res audio? All the extras from the two-disc DVD edition? 'American Gangster' should have been Universal's flagship title for the season, but it instead feels like a mere warm-up for a future double dip. Unless you're a huge fan of the film, just give this one a rent.
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.