Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ain't No Love In The Heart of the City: How The Wire Partially Ruined American Gangster For Me

We’ve been anticipating American Gangster for months now, giddily repeating lines from the trailer and remarking how any movie that tries to promote itself without using a Jay-Z song is really making things considerably more difficult then they need to be. Two great actors, great director, seemingly great story and some Oscar hype only added to the anticipation going into the theater last Sunday night.

After digesting the two and a half hours-plus of 1970’s drug trafficking, I wasn’t completely disappointed, but I wasn’t thrilled either. Both leads were great, with Denzel Washington managing to elicit feelings of love, respect, admiration and fear as Frank Lucas, while Russell Crowe made Richie Roberts a shining hero in a corrupt system. Come Oscar time, if one or both of these men received nominations, I would have no qualms. The movie focused on them, and they lived up to the hype, although it was a shame their scenes together were limited to the last fifteen minutes or so of the film.

The focus on the two leads also serves as the problem with the film, as ninety percent of the scenes revolve around either Lucas or Roberts. This movie strives to be a modern day Godfather, an all-time crime classic, but you only get glimpses of the supporting cast that makes epic movies so enjoyable. Only Lucas’ mother and wife and Roberts’ first partner and superior officer – the Captain from Monk, joyously – get any sort of character development. Lucas has a bunch of brothers and family members, but they’re glossed over, just like the members of Roberts’ anti-drug task force. We get a few minutes of introduction for each, and they pop up from time to time to play a part, but they’re completely forgettable.

That’s where Gangster fails, because it tries to tell the story of the drug trade from both sides, yet we never get to the heart of the matter. A few shots of corrupt cops here, junkie corpses and the nude heroin packagers there, and we’re supposed to see how drugs and corruption are evil. Yet the two main characters aren’t necessary indicative of these traits. Lucas, while violent, also gives back to the community and is both a great husband and son. Roberts, while sort of a deadbeat dad and outcast from the force, only achieves his status of outsider because he avoids the corruption so prevalent in the system.

Gangster was still a really enjoyable movie, which its eighty million dollar total after two weeks and favorable critical response attests to. Still, if you compare it to The Wire, it pales in comparison to showing the intricacies and devastation caused by both the drug trade and internal corruption to the government and its agencies. They’re obviously coming in with different missions on different formats, with Gangster trying to achieve in a hundred and fifty minutes what David Simon has had a few dozen hours to craft, but its startling how much more effective the little brother medium, television, is than its more hallowed cinematic counterpart.

The similarities between the two are almost plagiaristic at times. Roberts is Jimmy McNulty, sleeping around with whatever female looks his way while so recklessly focused on his goal of taking down crime he doesn’t care how he’s looked at by the rest of the department. Lucas is the perfect mix of Avon Barksdale’s street sense and gangster attitude and Stringer Bell’s business acumen and desire to fit into normal society despite the obvious illegal nature of his work. If you wanted to get really in-depth, you could say that Lucas’ shooting of Tango - played by Idris Elba, who also is Bell on The Wire – is representative of his shirking of normal society to fully embrace the violent nature of Barksdale.

The benefit of the slow burn, covering-every-detail style of The Wire is that you see the problems of society, both their causes and results, from every angle. The selfishness of those in power to hold onto their position and the desperation of those at the bottom to ascend get highlighted in an eclectic cast you get to know fully. They’re not “Accomplice brother” or “Hippy Anti-Drug Agent”, as they end up being in Gangster, but instead are important pieces to the puzzle. Maybe nobody in The Wire turns in a Washington or Crowe performance, but the multitude of great performances make up for the lack of star power.

American Gangster is good, and I’d fully recommend you see it, but it’s not a classic. I don’t think it even lives up to The Departed, and it’s definitely no Godfather. It’s a well-shot, well-acted, somewhat formulaic and predictable story of the drug trade and police corruption, but you can’t help but feel it could either get to where it wants to go quicker or with better detail. The movie falls short of greatness because it keeps the focus so closely on the two leads you lose a greater sense of perspective about the people in the community this is affecting. These feelings might stem from my affinity for a good supporting cast, but I think the points are valid.


Looking at some of the current Best Picture predictionsNo Country For Old Men, Atonement, There Will Be Blood, Charlie Wilson’s War and American Gangster as of today – I’m thinking this could be a very solid crop. I’m pretty sure I’m going to hate Atonement, although it does satisfy the “Put Keira Knightley in a period piece because she looks odd in normal modern clothes yet hot in anything else” criteria for a quality movie. I’ve mentioned that name to a few different girls since seeing the trailer, and it gets universal “Awwww, that book is sooooo good”, which again, leads me to think I’ll hate it.

I loved the trailer for Charlie Wilson’s War, which lets both Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts bust out accents while Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman get to chew some scenery. I’m also extremely excited for No Country For Old Men, which has been getting great reviews and continues Tommy Lee Jones’ excellent year (also had the critically beloved, audience ignored In The Valley of Elah), which almost makes up for Man of the House. It also has Woody Harrelson and is also a Coen brothers movie based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, so I’m all in.

There Will Be Blood is a wild card, not coming out until Christmas and featuring the underrated for probably not much longer Daniel Day-Lewis. I also wouldn’t write off Michael Clayton, Sweeney Todd, Juno, The Kite Runner or Into the Wild, which pop up on other charts here and here. I’ll probably end up with my support fully behind Juno and No Country, but I don’t want to make too many predictions sight unseen.

(Screw it: I’m really going to like Juno. Mike Cera, Jason Bateman, Rainn Wilson, J.K Simmons and directed by the guy who did Thank You For Smoking? Seriously, this isn’t even fair.)

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