In the past from God Father, to Scarface or Stanley Kubrik’s A Clockwork Orange, till Martin Scorsese master piece The Departed today, this austere genre of movies has attracted a huge number of audiences, mainly adults. Movies of this genre take little liberty from the creativity of the writer and rely mainly on the elements that are closer to life and that people can relate to. They show the eternal battle between good and the way it’s been fought in reality. That’s why most of the stories from this genre are either true or close to truth. Ridley Scott is among one of the finest film maker Hollywood has ever had.
His unique vision, his ability the select the right man for the right role and his stories that touches the hearts of audiences is simply astounding. He pretty much became a house hold name after making the epic hit, Gladiator and lifted Russell Crowe to the heights of stardom. His last movie “The American Gangster” was released in November 2007 and turned out to be a box office hit generating more than 250 million dollars. With an Oscar winning, A-list cast, great producers like Brian Grazer and Mark Jacobson and Steven Zaillian behind the script, the movie was suppose to and turned out to be a nothing less than a timeless classic.
On of the primary reasons for choosing this movie for analysis is the outstanding names attached to it, and chiefly, American Gangster represents the true face of an American age and society. It alleviates the differences between the age old good and bad schism and asserts that intelligence and integrity combined can either make or command both the element of good and evil. First and foremost, Ridley Scott does the most important task in bringing the movie to life beside the script and that task in casting.
Since the movie revolves around the life of Harlem’s drug lord Frank Lucas and the FBI agent hell bent on getting to him Richie Roberts, and since all the characters are pretty much real, so to say inspired by actual events and people, Scott had to be very careful in casting these two iconic roles that not only portray the characters of their real life counterparts, but also adapt those characters into themselves so as to bring out an outstanding combination of script and reality and give the audiences an anachronistic feeling.
Scott had already worked with Russell Crowe in the legendary Gladiator and A Good Year so he was selected for the role of Richie Roberts. As for the protagonist, who else could play the role of an African American than the iconic Oscar winning Denzel Washington. Both actors studied hard to get into their respective roles buy adapting accents and body languages of their real life counter parts and the work paid off. Both veterans totally dominate the screen with not only their charisma but their out standing true to life performances.
Since American Gangster is a period movie, an authentic look of United States and the City of New York had to be modeled after the era of late 60s and early 70s. specially the Harlem where most of the movie takes place is shown in the movie is shown relatively shabbier and crumbling to catch the look of late 60’s. Scott has utilized most of the actual locations of Harlem by toning them down to get the 60’s look. The attention to details is amazing. The scene where Lucas walks down the streets of Harlem along with his brothers gives a very authentic retro look.
The puddles on the street, people wearing vibrant colored shabby dress on the crumbling sidewalks, the derelict apartments with cloths lines and small dingy shops by the streets gives sincere glance almost 40 years back. The costume design is amazing; with only Washington wearing more than 64 costumes throughout the movie that represents the fashion of the era. The dresses his wife Eva wears the first time Frank tries to woo her is simply as astounding with elegance and a pinch or nostalgia.
The characters appear perfect in each and every attire. Richie (Crowe) adapts this sweaty and scruffy look to portray his underpaid and tough as nail job. Whilst Frank (Washington) evolves in his looks and personality through out the movie. His costumes move from servile and obsequious looking right hand thug to the rich elegant drug lord who wants to spend money, but not letting go of his dignity. The script and screen play are one of the prime elements of the movie.
Based on the article by Mark Jacobson and molded into a seemingly perfect screenplay by the Oscar winner screen play writer of the “Schindler's List", Steven Zaillian, the movie is adequately paced with adequate amount of time for all the characters to bloom to their full potential. The character of Frank Lucas is by far the heart of the movie as he rise of a second rate right hand man to this powerful and ingenious entrepreneur who takes full advantages of the Vietnam war.
Shown as a gentle and family man who loves his mother, wife and brothers, but at the same time a furiously ambitious man who guns down his opponents in the broad daylight if the occasion calls for it. The character of Richie though intense doesn’t get enough space to reach its full potential and very much remains the same. The screenplay takes some fictional liberties to a real life story worth of being watched. Pietro Scalia, has done a commendable job in the editing of the movie.
The film has been trimmed down to the point where it runs a comfortable 157 minutes without making the story lag. Scene transitions are done amazingly and build a sort of suspenseful tension for the viewers as the story lines deftly shift from Frank to Richie. Aside from the sharp editing, the movie has been toned down in its graphic content to be suitable for audience and not letting the violence predominate the story line.
Sound may not be the brightest of American Gangster’s features as the dubbing and sound effects lags behind the other elements of the movie. They dubbing is a bit hollow sounding where the voices seems to unnaturally echo. Filmed against the obstreperous background of Harlem, an attempt has been made to let the sounds of the bustling streets and traffic gets mixed with the voiceovers of the actors, but the result isn’t as sonorous. The sound effects are rather choppy, expect for the gun shots that reverberates throughout the whole theater.
The film has the original score music of Marc Streitenfeld, and the songs of Jay-Z, Anthony Hamilton, and classics like Sam and Dave and Mavis Staples which gives the movie a typical African American look and feel. Cinematography by far is one of the most beautiful elements of the movie. Harris Savides has done a remarkable job to in capturing the true essence of a bleak and derelict Harlem. From the gritty looking daylight lit streets to the after dark gloomy and distant feel of Harlem, Harris has made sure to make everything look real rather than artificially lit sets.
From the dimly lit Lucas’s drug locals to the diner where he has his breakfast as the sunlight hits the table illuminating everything brilliantly, each shot has its own visual treats. The faded and muted tones of the seventies also invoke a sense of melancholy or bleakness to parts of the film, which gives it a weight and depth. Incorporating all the quintessentials of great film making, the proper utilization of talent and an unparalleled vision is what makes The American Gangster, a success.
Ridley Scott, even though too constricted to work on a project as such as this one, has done an outstanding in rendering this movie as close to life as possible along with a superb cast who have done justice with their roles, specially Denzel Washington for out shining everyone in the movie. What makes this movie stand apart beside a great story and performance is the cinematography as Savides has tried to outdo himself by trying to capture the visual essence of an era four decades ago, which is one of the standing and most crucial elements of a period movie.