Bright Lights Film Journal

FAMILIARITY IS TOGETHERNESS: Thanksgiving to You Lord for our AMERICAN GANGSTER bounty.


After thanksgiving dinner and then AMERICAN GANGSTER later that night at the cinema, I come home feeling the need to scrub America off me with a wire brush. Russell Crowe’s honest cops is the descendent of SERPICO, Popeye Doyle and Travis in TAXI DRIVER. They’re janitors in a sewer with a mop and pail, and they’re the only ones clean. We keep hoping Denzel Washington’s gangster will start sass-talking like Harvey Keitel, but he stays in a suit way too gray for the era. He’s like a representative of 90s corporate culture returned through time to buy up as much cheap pre-Giuliani real estate as the traffic will allow, sneering at the hideous polyester knits around him as he does so. Denzel’s crew gets bitch-slapped when they try to pimp up their outerwear, but he seldom bothers to correct them when they slip out of time (the film is set between 1968-1973) and use black lingo that was just not around prior to Ice T or Run DMC, let alone the 1970’s funk. These guys should’ve listened close to Lightnin’ Rod’s HUSTLER CONVENTION while writing the dialogue, instead of Eminem.

Another problem is that Ridley Scott and co. don’t trust the audience’s attention span. So much money is thrown at the screen that you hope they’re planning a future extended cut to run about 34 hours. A whole trip to Vietnam and back–replete with massive poppy fields and decadent Saigon streets–whisks by in perhaps five minutes. You feel for the hundreds of extras, slaving day after day, topless, over white powder and then their scene is cut down to a single second. We don’t get to know anything tangible about any of the vast cast of characters, let alone the two main opponents. They’re even worse than unknown, they’re cliches. Don’t get me wrong, I love both these actors, and the movie is not bad; the subject of my rant tonight is rather the voracious way the film clings to the safety of proven mobster cliche and film editing tricks rather than try to create anything new.

Crowe is a composite of 70s antiheroes and Denzel is a composite of past Denzel at the well-dressed end of the spectrum, playing his character close-to-the-vest in such a way we never learn why he does what he does. Oh well, that’s show biz. Looking at it from the sleepy vantage point of the post-thanksgiving turkey digestion slumber, I looked around the table and couldn’t help but feel like, “Damn, these guys haven’t changed a bit in 30 years.”

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