HD DVD Title: American Gangster (Combo Format)
Screen format: 1080P, 1.85:1, VC-1 Encoded HD
First theatrical release: November 2, 2007
Other DVD or HD Releases: Day and Date with Widescreen DVD
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, RZA
Sound Formats: English & French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1
Length: 2 Hours, 38 Minutes / 2 Hours 57 minutes on DVD side
Subtitles: English & French
Versatile director Ridley Scott adds another genre to his already diverse set of films, this time focusing on the street dope scene in 1970s Harlem and the cops who brought the most unlikely of kingpins down. In 2007’s American Gangster, Frank Lucas (Washington) is a street smart thug with an outwardly respectable front, who has been groomed since age 12 to take over the reigns of the local crime family. When his mentor dies he lets the flashier up and comers think they are taking over while he works on something with a lot bigger payoff: cutting out the middleman and importing pure heroin from Vietnam through the help of American Soldiers. Offering a superior product at a cut throat price attracts the attention of corrupt cops and the Italian syndicates as well, but Frank uses all of his cunning to work it so he becomes even more untouchable than the mob.
Paralleling Lucas’ arc to fame is an unheralded street cop named Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe). Roberts is ostracized from his fellow police because he had the audacity to recover a million bucks in drug money and turned it in rather than keeping it, a sin that cannot be repented in the eyes of a corrupt department. Roberts manages to attract acclaim through his honesty and is recruited into a special interdepartmental task force that aims to go for the big players in the drug world, and his pursuit of this will cost him everything, including his family.
If this sounds like a rehash of ‘Heat’, with nods to just about every other mob movie in existence, you wouldn’t be far off in thinking that. The unfortunate thing is that despite all of the great build up and terrific acting and authentic period look, there is a twist in the final act that rather than taking the genre to new heights just completely deflates all the cred that the film has built up. While I’ll not ruin the surprise, the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies here, and even if the film does somewhat accurately portray Lucas and Robert’s interaction (which I STRONGLY doubt), it just isn’t all that fun or interesting. As boring as the first half of Heat was, the last twenty minutes are pure dynamite, and American Gangster is just the polar opposite of that for me.
Crowe perfectly captures the haggard existence of Roberts, nailing the ups and downs of what must be a miserable career following criminals who are without fear or morals. Washington however continues to offer a performance similar to the one from Inside Man, where half the time he has an air of complete disinterest to try to make up for his brilliant flashes of rage, and when he is at his most deadly he seems to be the most aloof, making for a very uneven portrayal. His transformation at the end of the film also cheapens the hard boiled exterior he showed throughout the rest of the film, even to his family.
Special nods should be given to the members of Frank’s family however, as there are terrific performances from Ruby Dee and Chiwetel Ejiofor in particular. There are extended cameos by Armand Assante and Cuba Gooding Jr. as well and despite the length of this film it seems that the smaller parts just didn’t get enough screen time all around.
The question then becomes: “Does the failure of the final act really condemn the whole?” I found myself fairly disappointed to say that because of the hype this film got as the next big contender in this genre, the failure drops this film from the ranks of heavyweights like The Godfather, Goodfellas and even Heat into a just an ok film. While Crowe’s performance was standout and I didn’t really care for Washington’s, neither was really a character that viewers could latch on to and identify with regardless of their failings or moral standpoints. In the end I just don’t think this will be an epic that stands the test of time and be one of the great classics.
Sound Quality: 4/5
Despite its’ not having a Dolby True HD track (likely due to the length of the film), I found the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix mostly satisfying. While there isn’t a constant buzz from all corners, there is a decent mix of environmental details hitting the rears. Musically there isn’t a whole lot interesting going on, and I barely took note of new tracks from composer Marc Streitenfeld, though the mix of urban and classic blues songs along with funk from Hank Shocklee were well placed. Dug out from the back of the rack are “Why don’t we do it in the road” by Lowell Fulson and Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It”, both of which made me smile. On the low end there isn’t a whole lot to talk about either, with the exception of a couple of a few nightclub scenes and various gunshots.
Visual Quality: 3.5/5
Scott is no stranger to having a very distinct look for each of his films, from the bleak starkness of Alien to the surreal glow of Gladiator, and for this film he uses a process that closely matches crime dramas from the 70s, which parallels the action on screen. It’s a bit low contrast and shows moderate grain, without the absolute sharpness that is possible on a 2007 film. It would be hard to call this a great looking film but I’m certain it matches his wishes exactly. The good news is that the print is cleaned up quite a bit and I didn’t notice a single speck of dirt or any tears or speckling. While unlikely to excite the new HD owner or those looking for an over the top presentation, it is well detailed, shows off the colorful characters of Harlem, and is decently sharp especially in facial detail.
Extra Features: 2.5/5
First off, Universal thought enough to include the extended directors cut of this film on disk, but unfortunately that cut is ONLY available on the standard definition flip side. Crazy I know, but probably due to the space restrictions, which are likely the culprit behind the lack of a TrueHD track as well. What is included is a bit of a mixed bag. Leading off are an alternate beginning and a half dozen (wisely) cut scenes, none of which were particularly missed but helped to flesh out the story a bit. There’s also a short featurette that details a bit more on Lucas and Roberts as they are today and some minimal fluff on how the film came to be. For you U-Control fans there’s a constant stream of Picture in Picture interviews with cast and crew, and I honestly didn’t like this film enough to go through all 148 minutes again or playing ‘hit the A button like a monkey’ trying to pick and choose interesting ones out of it, so until they are menu selectable individually I will continue to pass. Ultimately I fail to see why the biggest HD-DVD of the year from Universal was allowed to be completely outshined by the 3 disk deluxe DVD set that is released on the same day, but it truly was.
Overall: 3/5 (not an average)
To me American Gangster perfectly illustrates the mess that HD DVD is currently in. For starters, they can’t even fit the full extended edition and a lossless track together on one platter, then the U-Control features are so inept that only those who are truly interested in the movie or are hard core interactive fans will be willing to brave them, and then add on top of that that day and date DVDs are bundled with more extra content. And remember that this is a $40 MSRP title, where that 3 DVD set is only $34.99… Just what the doctor ordered for the failing format, right?
I’d love to give a thumbs up on this disk regardless of how the format is doing (remember I gave a glowing review to Elizabeth just last week), but if any HD DVD deserves to be passed over due to the format itself, it is this one. The shame of it is that there’s a decent if not great movie here, definitely worthy of at least a rental, but with all the other downsides it’s saddled with there is just too much against it unless you happen to snag it in the inevitable BOGO-or-better clear out rush.