Monday, November 12, 2007

AverageBro Goes To The Movies: American Gangster

[With an infant, I don't get to go to the movies at all nowadays. Pre-AverageBaby, I didn't miss an opening weekend. Now, Netflix is my best friend. So, I don't see things in a timely manner, but when I do, you get the best review in town right here.]

Watching the previews and pre-release hype of the new Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe drug drama American Gangster had me conflicted from the jump. Like every other person in the world, I'm a big Denzel fan, and I'd like him to succeed. I also don't buy into the stereotype of the only "positive" portrayals of blacks have to be doctor/lawyer or Cosby Show type images. Reality is, any story of any person overcoming great odds to become extraordinarily successful is inspiring on some level, to me at least.

On the flipside, in a year in which "the black image" has been constantly under assault, do I really need to drop $40 of the Gross Domestic Product to support a movie that is essentially Eyes On The Prize for dopeboys? The few times I've seen BET's similarly titled miniseries, I've walked away thinking that the thin line between glorification of abhorrent acts and praising brilliant business savvy has been traipsed over far too many times. Do I really want to give my hard earned duckats to a movie that practically celebrates the very ills that have our communities in the depressed positions they're currently in?

AverageSis and I missed opening weekend for this movie, and decided we'd just wait 60 days till it inevitably hit Netflix. Surprise of all surprises, the movie raked in nearly $50M it's opening weekend and is still going strong, so obviously, not many others were similarly conflicted. Our $40 wasn't missed. This success was somewhat surprising given the near CD quality bootleg floating around the East Coast (and maybe nationwide), which appears to be a stolen screener. We were "lent" a copy of this same bootleg, and thus, I finally got around to seeing the movie this weekend.

American Gangster is the story of a Vietnam-era Harlem drug dealer named Frank Lucas (Washington) who inherits the "family" business when his mentor Bumpy Johnson (a geriatric Clarence Williams IV) meets an untimely demise. Taking Bumpy's dying advice to "cut out the middle man" to heart, Lucas circumvents the usual channels of drug distribution by travelling to Thailand and procuring mass quantities of uncut cocaine with military assistance. With 100% pure and affordably priced product on the street (Blue Magic), Lucas' empire grows exponentially, and he imports his entire family from North Carolina to help run the operation. Such innovation upsets the natural order of things, as Italian mobsters, the corrupt police who assist them, and fellow Harlem dealers all aim to take Frank Lucas down. Further adding to the suspense is NYPD Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe), who leaves the force after discovering its internal corruption and works with the Feds to get to the bottom of the whole thing.

After all the buildup (the Jay-Z soundtrack, the real life Lucas' media rounds, whispers of Oscar nominations for Washington and Crowe), finally watching the movie itself felt like somewhat of a letdown. The movie itself is definitely not awful, it's just underwhelming given what I expected. Washington delivers his typically nuanced performance as Lucas, but you get the feeling you're watching Denzel playing Denzel, not Denzel playing a ruthless crime boss. Crowe's character is more complex, but hardly likable himself. The starpower drops off precipitously from there, as most of the other castmates are underused vets (Roger Guenveur Smith, Idris Elba, Joe Morton, Cuba Gooding Jr) or rappers (Common, The RZA, T.I.) playing inconsequential bit parts. The only other bright spot here is the always entertaining Chiwetel Ejioforn (Kinky Boots, Inside Man, Talk To Me), who plays Frank's dangerously naive younger brother Huey. If there's a guy who deserves his own starring role more, I've yet to discover him. Get this dude his own movie, please.

Like similarly overhyped (and to some, unwatchable) flicks such as The Godfather and Scarface , I suppose this movie will gain some sort of cult following over time. That iconic A.G. poster will be seen on the wall of every MTV Crib a decade from now. This isn't by any means a bad movie. It just doesn't (in my opinion) quite live up to the weeks of relentless hype that proceeded it. All things considered though, I wouldn't be surprised one bit to see Washington nominated for Best Actor. It's odd that the most "positive" roles of his career (Cry Freedom, Malcolm X, Glory, The Hurricane) have been largely ignored, yet he finally won for (what else?) playing a corrupt cop in Training Day. His next movie, The Great Debaters, is about "Professor Melvin Tolson, a brilliant but volatile debate team coach who uses the power of words to shape a group of underdog students from a small African American college in the deep south into a historically elite debate team". That sounds more my speed, but I'm sure the Academy will probably elevate Eyes On The Prize: DopeBoy Edition instead.

Again, don't be surprised.

Final Verdict: If a neighbor has the bootleg, borrow it. If you've gotta see it, at least go to the matinee. 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)

[Editor's Note: does not condone purchasing "bootlegs" or otherwise illegally obtaining copywritten material. But for the record, the bootleg of American Gangster available at your local barber/beauty shop is probably the best quality I've ever seen. I'm just sayin'.]

American Gangster [Yahoo! Movies]

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