Blu Ray Title: American Gangster
Disk Release Date: 14 October, 2008
Screen format: 1080P Widescreen 1.85:1 High Definition
First theatrical release: 2 November, 2007
Previous releases on disk: 19 February, 2008
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 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Theatrical version also has a French DTS 5.1
Length: 2 hours, 38 Minutes Theatrical, 2 Hours 57 Minutes Extended Version
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Note: Some portions of this review originated on my review of the HD DVD of this film.
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 reins 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.
Having viewed this film a second time with a critical eye I found myself continuing in that belief. There is a decent story that gets dragged down by an overly long telling and the major twist at the end really didn’t seem either believable or interesting even if it is true.
Sound Quality: 4/5
This BluRay makes the best of the jump to full uncompressed audio and the DTS Master Audio captures the period sound as well as imparting a solid and satisfying modern mix. While there isn’t a constant buzz from all corners, there is a decent run of environmental details hitting the rears and the wide front sound stage puts the viewer into the middle of the limited action sequences nicely.
On this second viewing I have to question my original note that “Musically there isn’t a whole lot interesting going on, and I barely took note of new tracks from composer Marc Streitenfeld”, but the second half of that paragraph is quite accurate: “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.” Likewise the low end gets a nice boost here, with a decent presence throughout, with well placed use specifically in the nightclub scenes and various gunfights.
Visual Quality: 4/5
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, and looking a lot sharper than I remember the HD DVD looking, tho still not at the high end of what is technically possible on a 2007 film. 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. It’s not an over-the-top presentation, but it is well detailed, shows off the colorful characters of Harlem, and is decently sharp especially in facial detail. Overall it looks as good or better than the HD DVD and has all of the content from the Extended AND Theatrical cuts on it, so those looking to upgrade can do so without fear.
Extra Features: 4/5
Hooray, Universal really fixed a lot of my complaints about the HD DVD’s extras! First as noted above both cuts are available by selection when the disk is first popped in and changeable via menu selection! Most of the good stuff from the DVD side of the HD DVD and a lot of the stuff from the 3 disk DVD Special Edition are also here. 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 177 minutes again or playing ‘hit the A button like a monkey’ trying to pick and choose interesting ones out of it, but they are at least menu selectable tho it’s always a mystery as to what each one will be about until you get to it.
Features not on the HD DVD include an extensive “Making Of” and a second making of from BET, a “First Look” from Dateline NBC, a music video, a look at the hip-hop singers contributions to the film plus a rundown via case-files. For those who were really into the film there is a ton here to sort through.
Overall: 4/5 (not an average) – Recommended
The rush job Universal pulled on the previous releases of American Gangster perfectly illustrated the mess that HD DVD was in. They couldn’t fit the full extended edition and/or a lossless track together on one platter, the U-Control features were so inept that only those who truly loved the movie or were hard core interactive fans would be willing to brave them, and then add insult to injury the cheaper DVD that shipped on the same day was bundled with more extra content. Thankfully this BluRay destroys that version and leaves it as nothing but a bad memory. While Universal isn’t putting this level of effort into every catalog title it’s clear that the format truly shines if they are willing to go the extra mile to take advantage of all it has to offer. I can grumble about the U-control still but even that is a little better than before.
There’s a decent film under all of this, and while the last chapter of it and its extreme length bring it down quite a bit, there is still a lot to like and it is comforting to see that it gets backed up with a BluRay release that is worthy of an enthusiast’s excitement. Good second effort Universal, keep it up and keep pushing yourselves and the format. Recommended.