We’re going to attempt to do this short and sweet from the plus side down, as there’s plenty of praise out there for Ridley Scott‘s "American Gangster" (it’s also somehow already hit #148 on the IMDb top 250) though our usual round of critics are more mixed. (As we mentioned before, we didn’t like the film, through not enough to feel motivated to write much up… seriously, it’s kind of dull. And vaguely morally distasteful — Scott softballs the Lucas character, which is understandable in that he’s played by the eminently likable Denzel Washington, but there’s never acknowledgment from Lucas of what he’s doing, and it comes off as a bit ick when the film finally decides who its bad guys are. But we digress…)
"One must applaud American Gangster as the kind of socko [socko!] entertainment many people thought Hollywood filmmakers had become incapable of. It is not to be missed," writes Andrew Sarris at the New York Observer in what must count as a rave, if one filled with many incredulities. Roger Ebert gives the film four stars and adds a few accolades for Russell Crowe: "This is an engrossing story, told smoothly and well, and Russell Crowe’s contribution is enormous." J. Hoberman at the Village Voice adds that "Ambitious as American Gangster is, it’s well suited to Denzel Washington’s particular star quality — “the circumspect badass." "Normally, Scott loves his flash-bang setpieces," writes Tasha Robinson at the Onion AV Club, "but he proves equally adept at low-key verisimilitude and long-form storytelling, the kind that sprawls out over years of incidents that only gradually add up to a powerful whole."Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly finds that the film "is meticulous and detailed, a drug-world epic that holds you from moment to moment, immersing you in the intricate and sleazy logistics of crime. Yet the movie isn’t quite enthralling; it’s more like the ghost version of a ’70s classic." He puts some of that blame on Washington’s shoulders, as does David Edelstein at New York, who suggests that the filmmakers’ "ambition is out there. But for all the sprawl, American Gangster feels secondhand. It’s like Scarface drained of blood, at arm’s length from the culture that spawned it." Seconds Slate‘s Dana Stevens (who still notes that the film is "unassailably well-crafted"), "American Gangster… never reconciles its desire to be the black Scarface — a bloody, balls-out fantasy of crime as a form of ethnic empowerment — with its aspiration to be something weightier: a grittily realistic treatise on race, capitalism, and social mobility in America."
David Denby at the New Yorker deems the film "a febrile cops-and-robbers picture that has been scaled as an epic," but adds that "But none of this devastation alters the approving portrayal of Frank. After a while, the shallowness of his characterization and the movie’s glib impassivity become a little unnerving." Glenn Kenny at Premiere adds that "the new perspective Scott and [screenwriter Steven] Zaillian want to bring to this material never gels convincingly, and despite some effective set pieces, a cast of memorable faces and attitudes, and evocative cinematography by Harris Savides, this would-be epic feels tired and rote." Stephanie Zacharek at Salon bemoans that way the film "offers only the stingiest platform for its actors, and as a piece of
storytelling — built on the foundation of a great story — it’s an
epic that’s been sliced and diced into so many little morsels that
almost nothing in it has any weight." Manohla Dargis at the New York Times
calls both of the leading men "irresistible," though for her that is
"as much part of the movie’s allure as its problem… [Scott] distracts
and entertains until the divide between his seriousness of purpose and
the false glamour that wafts around American gangsters, and invariably
trivializes their brutality, becomes too wide to breach."
Armond White at the New York Press declares Scott an "ultrahack." (We don’t dislike Scott, but we can’t help ourselves: Heh.) He goes on to writes of the film’s "innumerable gangster movie cliches" that it’s "dubious historicism is as fanciful as Gladiator but the relation to modern social crisis makes it far more insulting. It ‘verifies’ those crime stories through which pop media redefined American moral and social issues — and the Western lost its primacy." And we’ll let Nick Schager at Slant have the last word: "Not only is American Gangster dumb as a rock, but it’s also far too convinced of its import to be any fun. Except, that is, in unintentional ways, and there are quite a few of those to be found."