The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
Monday, November 5, 2007 - 5A
All the power that
its title implies
'Gangster' is just entertaining, not epic
By MITCHELL AKSELRAD
Daily Arts Writer
There's power embedded in a
title like "American Gangster." It's
a power supported by two char-
ismatic leads and a company of
talented performers. It's a power
evoked by a screenplay efficient in
its construction. It's a power inher-
ent to director Ridley Scott's name.
Power is an obvious theme in
"American Gangster," along with
family, values and corporate orga-
nization. These are the virtues on
which America was founded, and
Steven Zaillian's script, based on
the New York Magazine article
"The Return of Superfly" by Mark
Jacobson, makes sure to sew them
into the fabric of every scene. The
strength of the screenplay is at
the heart of the movie's success.
Its patience and complexity are
also rare: With a 157-minute run-
time and slow but articulate climb
toward the climax, this is not the
Most important, you won't
think to look at your watch. The
film stars two of Hollywood's most
gifted actors, and your eyes never
leave the screen because you don't
want to miss a single twitch of the
mouth or glean of the eye. Every
moment is captivating. It's Russell
Crowe and Denzel Washington, but
it's also Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Inside
Man"), Josh Brolin ("Planet Ter-
ror" and of early "Goonies" fame),
John Hawkes ("Deadwood") and
Yul Vazquez ("Bad Boys II"), to*
name just a few.
It might be inevitable, and even
a little trite, to mention "The God-
father" here. Not because both
the greatest American movie and
"American Gangster" are about
gangsters. And not because they
both cover long stretches of time
as main characters rise and fall.
"Gangster" pays homage in theme
rather than technical pastiche.
Who's more right? A man who
deals in illegal products and death
but honors a code of conduct, or a
man who respects the law by all
means but cannot be loyal to those
in his own world? "Gangster" isn't
really about drug dealers and cops.
It's about how pride and ethical
conviction protect and destroy the
One brilliant scene in "Gang-
ster" finds protagonist Frank Lucas
(Denzel) and his nephew Stevie
(rapper TI.) relaxing on a Thanks-
giving afternoon. Stevie is a good
enough baseball player to earn a
q spot on the Yankees, but he tells his
uncle, "I don't wanna play baseball
no more ... I wanna be you." Frank
doesn't need to say a word. The
disappointment he feels about his
nephew's rejection of a legitimate
future is equal to the blame he puts
on himself for inspiring such a sor-
did career path.
There are conversations about
"never forgetting where we came
from." There are scens where
Crowe's character, Richie Rob-
erts, comes to terms with the loss
of custody of his son. But you get
gunplay for your money, too. The
badass action scenes with auto-
matics and lethal sledgehammers
that will sell the movie are just
as satisfying. So is the inevitable
confrontation between the two big
men themselves. When Frank and
Richie finally meet, you feel it in
Pay attention to the film's subtler
successes, namely the inclusion of
news coverage about Vietnam, and
Power in the
title, power in
its less subtle visual ones, like cos-
tume designer Janty Yates's dedi-
cation to 1970s Harlem fashion:
big hats, flashy sunglasses and fur
The final redemption for certain
characters and minor details that
seem far-fetched might prevent
the movie from entering the realm
of gangster-film touchstones of
the past. Yet there is brilliance in
the contrast between the first and
final scenes of Lucas, which serve
as ingenious bookends for the film.
Enter Ridley Scott, whose vision
and experience is responsible for
this tight, artful story. Scott has
supplied American culture with
another great tale.
The performances are great,
Harris Savides's cinematography
reflects the look of the film's period
and the tone, and the locations are
as descriptive as the dialogue. But a
film deserving of such widespread
marketing, with a bill of players
and crew that put the butts in the
seats, calls for more than just a
simple checklist. "American Gang-
ster" calls into question our prin-
ciples. Like an epic period piece
should, it presents much that can
be pared down to a simple theme:
the comparison of two people in
opposite situations dealing with
the same decisions. The two words
of the tile itself invoke a relation-
ship between the ideal and the
gritty reality - one does not exist
without the other.
than the epic its creators clearly
By PAUL TASSI Ever since its announcement,
Daily Film Editor the film has been heralded as the
black "Scarface" or "Godfather."
"American Gangster" should If it had to be classified as one of
be a master- these two, it's probably the lat-
piece. There's American t'er, since its violence and themes
no way around are subtler than, say, the roaring
it. It's based on Gangster engine of a chainsaw echoing off
the story of the ceramic bathroom walls.
first black man AtQualityl6 But unlike either of those
who gained and Showcase films, "American Gangster"
truly legend- Universal isn't really about a rise to power.
ary status in Frank Lucas's bo ,dies about 3
the world of seconds into the film, and even
organized crime. It stars Den- though he's only his bodyguard
zel Washington and Russell and driver, Lucas (Washington)
Crowe, two consummate actors, is collecting bills and going to
each playing a type of charac- the Vietnamese jungle to buy
ter they have perfected on their cocaine in a matter of minutes.
own tracks: Washington as The movie is instead about
the strong, charismatic leader, having power and keeping it.
Crowe as the downtrodden hero One of the film's great moments
with a heart of gold. All this is is when Lucas berates his rela-
under the helm of their friend, tive for wearing a flashy suit,
director Ridley Scott, who can telling him the flashiest are the
make classic movies like most ones who get caught. Later, he
people make peanut butter and fails to follow his own advice,
jelly sandwiches. much to his potential downfall.
Why, then, is "American The balance between extrava-
Gangster" merely good rather gance and restraint is discussed
often in the film, and that's prob-
ably its most unique contribution
to the genre.
Washington plays this role
with ease, but it's nothing we
haven't seen him do before. He's
a maverick, but between his pow-
erful performance as Malcolm
X or his Oscar-winning turn as
Alonzo in "Training Day," there
isn't much new to see here. He
executes every line perfectly, but
there's no new flavor.
On the other side of the law is
Russell Crowe as detective Rich-
ie Roberts. What would seem
like a flawed anti-hero is, upon
closer inspection, neither flawed
nor anti-anything, just a flat-
out Boy Scout. Despite looking
stoned most of the movie, Rob-
erts never does any drugs, never
steals any money and never does
anything wrong - save for not
having enough free time to spend
with his kid. It seems Scott just
needed Crowe to play Roberts as
another name for the marquee,
since the role doesn't require
much else other than speeches
on "the right thing to do."
The story is the strong point
of the film. Lucas's rise from his
peak to his fall to his redemption
is engrossing to watch, albeit a
little slow at times. Roberts's half
of the story, on the other hand, is
less entertaining, since watching
him go to divorce court, take the
bar exam and hide in a car tak-
ing pictures isn't exactly Dirty
Harry-type police work.
yes, but not
The climax involves a full-
scale automatic weapons fight
(although no one says "say 'ello
to my little friend"), and the end-
ing reinforces how incredible it
is that this is an actual true story.
"Gangster" is definitely worth-
while, but what it's not worth is
all the hype surrounding it. It's
good but not amazing, entertain-
ing but not enthralling and - I
hate to say it - forgettable.
ARTS IN BRIEF
Rvi w MCAT Simply the Best!
meets hipster camp
"Wristcutters: A Love Story"
To all those angsty, emo and
alternative kids out there looking
for a movie to connect with: Your
film has arrived.
"Wristcutters" is a low-budget
surrealist geek show about purga-
tory and one loner's quest to, find
his ex-girlfriend, a fellow success-
ful wrist cutter. This is a modern-
ist purgatory. An icy, cold, muted
wasteland of place, it looks like a
dilapidated West and photo stu-
This is serious business deflated
by a wonderfully campy approach.
For a look at something serious like
suicide, this is more of a road come-
dy. Which, for the most part, is fun,
and allows for some interesting
stops along the way (Will Arnett's
"Messiah" is a must-see). Religion,
spirituality and life consciousness
get stopped at the door for this sur-
prisingly airy story.
Therein lies the only problem
with "Wristcutters." Can suicide
be diluted via comedy and kooky
characters? "Six Feet Under" did
it well, and if you get the joke, you
might really enjoy this.
Besides, a film beginning with
a suicide set to Tom Waits may be
deserving of hipster cool cult status.
We get 'Kaya,' but
we really don't care
Mondays at 11 p.m.
One Avril Lavigne is enough,
MTV. Why are yougivingus anoth-
er artist who sounds - if it's possi-
ble - even more annoying?
"Kaya" is the latest show in
MTV's all-crap-all-the-time lineup
and is named for a girl (Danielle
Savre, "Heroes")who sings in a new
indie-rock band with emo boys in
bowler hats. She hates bubblegum
music and takes herself far too seri-
ously, refusing to relent her "hard-
core"persona. She eventurns down
a song during a concert because it
doesn't live up to her standards,
then storms off the stage and cries
in a stairwell (so punk). As if that's
not enough, she also has visions of-
her dead sister, making Kaya. not
only self-obsessed but crazy, too.
The showis built on classic MTV:
young people leading teenybop-
per-envious lives. Between "Kaya,"
"The Hills" and "Laguna Beach,"
there's more than enough reason to
host an MTV intervention.
With record labels changing her
image and her band mates call-
ing her a "skank," Kaya feels like
no one understands her. But that's
not true. We understand - we just
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