American Gangster: Unrated Extended Version (2007)
What is it with director Ridley Scott and his predilection for multiple edits of his films? Is he indecisive and a consummate tinkerer (like George Lucas) or a victim of studio politics? I suspect none of these are true. So how come there are always multiple cuts of his movies? Do his terms of employment always deny him final edit on a movie? I would think not. A film maker of his stature must surely get far more favourable terms when contract to make a film? Whatever the reason it leaves audience with a problem. How is one exactly to determine which is the best version of any of his films to see? For example, Kingdom of Heaven was greatly improved in its extended format. Yet his revised version of Alien is actually inferior to the original theatrical cut. And don’t even get me started on the plethora of versions of Blade Runner. His penchant for multiple edits therefore makes it difficult to debate his work.
In 1968, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) a driver, bouncer and minor collector, witnesses the death of his crime boss and mentor Bumpy Johnson. The loss of leadership causes unrest in Harlem crime circles. Frank decides to import heroin directly from Bangkok, using US military airplanes from Vietnam to USA. The quality of his drugs along with the lower prices makes Frank Lucas the number one distributor of heroin in USA at the time. Meanwhile, in the Essex County, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is studying for the Bar Examination. Due to his service record and tough stance on corruption, he is invited to join and head a Federal Investigation Team and set about bringing down all the biggest dealers in the US. Inevitably his path is destined to cross that of Frank Lucas.
I recently viewed the Unrated Extended version of American Gangster. I had not previously seen the theatrical release so can’t make any comments about major differences and which is the superior cut. What I can say is that it’s a well written drama with very strong central performances. Exactly what you would expect from such a director and cast. However, although the core subject is very interesting, American Gangster does not bring anything radical or new to the genre. It is absorbing, rather low key and driven by the two leads. It is not epic in its scope or especially illuminating with regard to the subject matter. Perhaps therein lies the problem. We have reached a point where we always expect the directors work to be visionary in scope and are therefore somewhat wrong footed when he sets his sights lower.
American Gangster doesn’t make the obvious mistake of glamorising the genre. Its portrayal of drug addiction is ugly and harsh, which is exactly as it should be. For a film that focuses on one of the most violent aspects of American culture, it is quite restrained in its depiction. The sub plot relating to Police corruption at times seems the more intriguing of the multiple story lines. The involvement of US Army personnel and the violation of the war dead, whose caskets are used for smuggling heroin could have been explored further. Considering the magnitude of this particular crime and the reverence with which the US public holds veterans, I had hoped this matter would have been played a greater dramatic part in the proceedings. However, the central performances are exemplary from both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, exactly as you would expect, although the films ending does somewhat strain one sense of credibility.
The gangster genre has not performed as well with critics in recent years as it has in the past. For example The Departed did not clinch the Best Film Oscar it so desperately wanted in 2006. The most interesting entries in this field of late have mainly been international releases, such as Mesrine and The Baader Meinhof Complex. All of which have brought a new European perspective to a traditional genre. American Gangster strives to be worthy and certainly covers a lot of ground (especially in the 176-minute Unrated Extended version) yet it strays too far from the historical facts and ultimately despite good performances, feels a little too routine and less than the sum of its parts. The story has many wider sub plots that are insufficiently developed and subsequently squandered. In many respects, the viewer is left wanting to know more despite the strong central performances. Overall, American Gangster is by no means a poor way to spend three hours, but viewers should adjust their expectations accordingly.