"American Gangster" is a solid portrayal of the underbelly of our world. It's dark and morose, but also compelling and engaging.
American Gangster (2007, Blu-ray)
Directors: Ridley Scott
Producers: Ridley Scott, Brain Grazer and Ron Howard
Writers: Steven Zaillian (written by) Mark Jacobson (article)
Features: * Commentary * Extended Cut * Documentary * Featurettes * Deleted Scenes * Pip Commentary * Bookmarking * BD-Live *
Denzel Washington ... Frank Lucas
Russell Crowe ... Det. Richie Roberts
Chiwetel Ejiofor ... Huey Lucas
Josh Brolin ... Detective Trupo
Lymari Nadal ... Eva
Ted Levine ... Det. Lou Toback
Roger Guenveur Smith ... Nate
John Hawkes ... Det. Freddie Spearman
RZA ... Moses Jones
Yul Vazquez ... Alphonse Abruzzo
Malcolm Goodwin ... Jimmy Zee
Ruby Dee ... Mama Lucas
Ruben Santiago-Hudson ... Doc
Carla Gugino ... Laurie Roberts
American Gangster Blu-ray Review
There seems to be two versions of Ridley Scott these days. There's the meticulous Ridley Scott who focuses his time on detail and action. Recently, this version of Scott has banged out style-over-substance epics like "Gladiator" and "Kingdom of Heaven." Then there's the softer, muted Ridley Scott, who enjoys telling simpler stories about life. Detail isn't as meticulous and substance is favored over style. This version of Scott has made films like "A Good Year" and "Matchstick Men." Both men are fine filmmakers, but rarely do they blend together.
But that's exactly what's happened with "American Gangster." Soft, character-driven Ridley Scott joins forces with style-driven Ridley Scott to bring us an absorbing true tale of rising inner-city drug-lord, Frank Lucas, who bypassed the middle-man and got his drugs directly from the Asian supplier making him a charismatic millionaire almost over night. Frank is pursued by detective Ritchie Roberts. Roberts is hell bent on bringing down the source of drugs in New York and sees Lucas as the city’s main supplier.
What follows is a meticulous, engaging and intense film, curiously woven with a subtle string of morality. Is Frank Lucas the true bad guy or just an entrepreneur with a bad business? Or are the true bad guys the crooked cops who sell dirty drugs on the street adding to the rampant drug use in the city. Scott never offers a real answer. Rather, he spends his time crafting the world in an unapologetic way. He paints vivid, realistic characters that inhabit a drab, murky world.
Lucas is portrayed by Denzel Washington. Washington wasn't interested in telling a story that glorified a drug dealer, and he definitely struggles with that for the film's somewhat tedious two hours and forty minutes (the director’s cut is an even longer three hours). Washington's Lucas is a businessman who becomes increasingly aware that his business is crooked and sinister. The world around him is never pretty, but he constantly attempts to replicate a world of normalcy, but that world never truly comes to be. Washington's performance is stunning, to say the least. He brings compassion when needed, hate when applicable and dread throughout. If anyone can match the complexity of Washington's Lucas, it's Russell Crowe's Ritchie Roberts. Roberts is an honest man with little honestly left in him. Crowe crafts a delightfully complex anti-hero out of Roberts, avoiding all the bumpy cliches of such a character along the way. His is the more subtle of the two performances, and in many ways, more layered and complex.
Scott's direction is concise, but a bit wayward. The film takes a bit too long to get rolling and the extended Director's Cut, which runs a full eighteen minutes longer than the theatrical cut, wears out it's welcome long before the finale. Scott is definitely struggling between his two sides and while the result is an even mix of style and substance, length is heavily compromised. Regardless, this is a fine return to form for Scott, who lost himself in the messy sentimentality of his last picture, "A Good Year." "American Gangster" is a solid portrayal of the underbelly of our world. It's dark and morose, but also completely compelling and engaging.
Film Report Card:
As entertainment: B+
As a film: A-
Universal presents "American Gangster" on Blu-ray in 1.85:1 widescreen, encoded in 1080p/VC-1 video on a BD50 disc. I still recall director Ridley Scott expressing his anger over the dismal HD DVD transfer, proclaiming that the disc would be reworked for Blu-ray in the future. Alas, the transfer looks exactly the same as that release--muted, tired, flat and flush with murky browns, oranges, tans and putrid yellows.
Black levels are a bit crushed as well, particularly during indoor sequences. The film lacks an overall sharpness though dust and film grain are virtually non-existent. Also problematic is DNR, edge compression and artifacting--prominent in almost every scene. I'm guessing that this film barely fit onto the disc and many of the problems are the result of rabid compression. This film is not meant to be stylistic in Ridley Scott's usual ways, but the film is definitely attempting to have a "look"...it's just not a very good look, particularly when transferred under the microscopic eye of high def.
Universal presents the film in DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio, an obvious step up from the Dolby Digital Plus track on the HD DVD. Yes, the mix is certainly cleaner, sporting better fidelity and louder surround effects, but it’s still nothing to cry home about. The disc is evenly mixed, but what I found odd was just how noticeably inorganic the surround effects felt. There were even times where the film seemed to have unfinished surround effects. The center channel is also not tuned properly with certain sequences being very hard to hear while other sequences were a bit too loud. It’s a better mix than the HD DVD, but still, what a weird mix for such a major release.
Finally, fans get seemingly all the bonus material found on the three-disc DVD set. My only problem, why wasn't this major release bumped to a two-disc Blu-ray set? Regardless, what we do get is well worth your time and energy to peruse:
• Extended Director’s Cut -- Probably the biggest addition for fans is the extended cut of the film, finally presented in high-def as opposed to the HD DVD release, which just had the extended cut on the DVD side.
• Commentary -- I've always found director Ridley Scott a delight to listen to, and this commentary is no different. Scott is very articulate and sincere. He is joined by screenwriter Steve Zallia. The track does have its dry spots, thanks to a heavy running time, but it's still worth a listen.
• Deleted Material -- Two rightfully cut scenes. Oddly, the cut footage that makes its way into the Director's Cut is not found here. What's up with that?
• Documentary: ‘Fallen Empire’ -- This exhaustive 78-minute look into the making of the film is about as good as any typical Ridley Scott making-of documentary (think: "Alien," "Blade Runner")--it’s informative, engaging and filled with awesome on-set factoids, history and trivia. This documentary is well worth your time.
• Featurettes: ‘Case Files,’ ‘Hip Hop Infusion,’ ‘BET Special,’ and ‘Dateline Special’ -- While all four of these featurettes are certainly entertaining and informative, the only featurette of substance is the ‘Dateline’ spot, offering up an interesting look into the history of the real characters. ‘Case Files’ also explores the genesis of the script, which some may find fascinating.
• Music Videos and Trailer -- You know the drill with these.
Universal offers up some goodies for high-def lovers.
• Pip Commentary (profile 1.1 players and above) -- This track has been slightly reworked from the original HD DVD release. Now available on the extended cut, this PiP track contains even more behind the scenes footage and interviews. Still, this is definitely not the best picture-in-picture track that Universal has presented. There isn't a whole lot of interview footage called up. Why this track wasn't reserved for comments from the real Frank Lucas and Ritchie Roberts is again, beyond me.
• Bookmarking/Web Enabled -- Universal's standard bookmarking feature and web-enabled features are present here.
"American Gangster" comes in an "Elite" blue case. Design is simple and in fitting with Universal's other titles, but the blue case starkly contrasts with the black poster design. A black elite case would have been interesting.
"American Gangster" isn't this era's "Godfather." It isn't even this era's "Scarface." It's just not as precise as either of those films. Rather, the film is a brilliantly crafted time capsule taking you back to an era of crooked cops, cool gangsters and obsessed anti-heroes. The Blu-ray edition seemingly ports over all of the special features from the three-disc DVD set. Ultimately, a lack of two discs ruins the overall presentation, leaving fans without a reference version of this great film.
Blu-ray Report Card:
HD Content: B
Recommendation: Worth a rental.
On Blu-ray Disc: October 14, 2008.
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----R. L. Shaffer