Monday, November 12, 2007

American Gangster-ish

A friend told me repeatedly how fabulous "American Gangster" is. I learn a lot about people by what they recommend me; I recall feeling really ambiguous about the PR agency my company hired when our account executive convinced me to read "The Firm," telling me it was one of the best books she'd ever read. I've had a friendship sour over an obsession with "Titanic." (I should have realized how bad her taste was when "Braveheart" was her other favorite film.)

Now I'm not giving up on this particular friendship just because of the way she raved over "American Gangster," but it does puzzle me that someone I thought I had a lot in common with would go so ga-ga over that film. I don't think it's a bad movie, just not really rave-worthy.

It's hard to define what bothered me about it, but it might just be that Denzel Washington is not the right actor to play someone inherently evil. You want him to have motivation for his bad deeds, and the film gives him just the barest - his late boss wasn't a true crime boss, as he still answered to the white man, so Denzel cuts out the "middle man" and starts an enterprising drug organization that hits all the hot buttons of capitalistic glory. I might be able to buy that, but what exactly turns this man into someone who can put a bullet into a rival's head right out on the street (in front of the man's girl friend, and innocent civilians) and not blink an eye? Everyone wants to catch this guy for his drug dealing, but nothing is said about his murderous rages. At one point, his mother begs him not to become a cop killer, which makes no sense - he's already killed, isn't that horrifying enough for a mother to accept? Her son killed the son(s) of other mothers. Or is she just as heartless as he is, just hoping he doesn't cross the line far enough to put him in the chair?

I kept thinking of "The Departed" and wondering why that movie worked for me with a completely amoral character like Jack Nicholson's. Maybe because Jack is that different an actor? That I don't need to see his motivation or understand him? Denzel is smooth and charming in this role, but you never see the monster inside him. An acting choice? Maybe. But I wanted to walk away knowing less about how big the house was he bought for his mother than about how many people he killed to afford it. My own steadfast "morality" getting in the way of my enjoyment of a film? Maybe.

I also just didn't feel that entranced by the movie's plot. We know right from the start how Denzel runs his operation, and for much of the film, Russell Crowe's detective/lawyer isn't even aware of him, let alone on his tail, so when he finds him easily it's not much of a revelation. Compare that to "The Departed" and the endless tense moments when Leonardo DiCaprio's undercover cop seems like he's been found out.

I think for me, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a much more satisfying thriller.


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