It has been a year of Oscar candidates, and the heavy contenders are only starting to show up to the game. It's one of the most competitive years in a decade, but some critics are saying that American Gangster is the closest thing to a walk-on so far. It's not that the movie is the most powerful or well done so far, but it has everything that Oscar voters love: two terrific actors delivering solid performances, a consistent director, a quality screenplay and box office success.
American Gangster opened to a shockingly large $46 box office take last weekend, amazing earnings for an R-rated drama that's nearly three hours long. Why? Denzel Washington has always been a solid performer. People know Russell Crowe is good and have largely gotten over his strong off-screen behavior. Ridley Scott rarely does a truly bad movie. The marketing (the previews) has been top notch. The buzz has been good. The reviews have pretty much matched the buzz.
But who cares what others think! This is my review, right? American Gangster is a very good movie. It has a fun good cop/bad guy storyline that just happens to be based on real life events. The movie doesn't rely on convention to keep the audience entertained; Crowe and Denzel barely share a scene in the entire movie, nor is there tons of action; but the film has chemistry, and it keeps the audience engaged as we see the gradual rise and sudden fall of a drug empire. Neither Crowe or Denzel deliver their most impatcful or memorable performances of their careers, but both fit the mold of their characters, proving they don't have to chew scenes to stay on top. I've always liked Denzel, but have grown a bit tired of his shouting-to-effect style; thankfully, that is almost nonexistent here, as he is a more subtle yet equally ruthless villain. I loved him in Training Day and I liked him a lot here, but both present two entirely different villains from the same actor. Crowe is almost shy in his delivery, a complete turnaround from his bold, frothing character in September's 3:10 to Yuma. These actors can do just about anything (especially Crowe), and even if neither will win awards for American Gangster, they should be applauded nonetheless.
All that being said, I've already seen about ten movies I liked more this year. American Gangster isn't quite as flowing or majestic as a Scorsese gangster flick (I've heard it likened to Goodfellas a few time), isn't quite as powerful as an epic drama and isn't as entertaining as some of the other high quality fare this year. But, in most years, American Gangster would be flying high, but 2007 is not an ordinary year. 2007 is the year where good films (have) made a comeback and hopefully will continue to do so for the next two months. As such, as good as American Gangster is, it feels like it's missing something small that keeps it out of that upper threshold... of course, for the reasons mentioned above, it still has a shot at Oscar gold: box office, big names and good reviews. How can you complain about that?
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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