Single Person’s Movie: American Gangster

It’s 2 AM and you awake with a jerk, alone in your fully-lit apartment and still on the couch. On TV, the credits of some movie you’ve already seen a billion times are scrolling by. It feels like rock bottom. And we know, because we’re just like you: single.

Need a movie to keep you company until you literally can’t keep your eyes open? Join us tonight when we pass out to American Gangster [starting @ 12:15 a.m. on More Max]

Why we’ll try to stay up and watch it: “They don’t make movies like this anymore” is a cliché reserved for dusty film critics to bestow upon beautifully old-fashioned pieces of cinema. We’re all but certain someone will utter a variation on those words while talking about Gran Torino, if they haven’t already.

Well, at the risk of sounding dated: they don’t make movies like American Gangster anymore. It’s not that the Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe film is some heightened moment of greatness worthy of Pauline Kael’s love. Rather, it’s the closest thing we’ve seen in the last few years to capturing the feeling of those bloated, studio-driven star vehicles from the 70s. Billed as an urban take on The Godfather, Ridley Scott’s nearly three-hour opus happily heists your memories of dozens of movie classics, including The French Connection, Scarface, Platoon and Black Caesar.

This might sound like we dislike American Gangster, but far from it. The film is high-gloss studio comfort food and it’s wildly entertaining (if only Jay-Z’s soundtrack songs were featured in the actual film). Mr. Scott brings no pretense to the film, giving it a basic 70s “point and shoot” feel. Most of the gritty look can be attributed to cinematographer Harris Savides, who has never met a rain-drenched street he didn’t like. (Incidentally, Mr. Savides was woefully under-recognized for his triumvirate of truly excellent work in 2008, including American Gangster, Zodiac and Margot at the Wedding. Hopefully that gets rectified with an Oscar nomination this year for Milk.)

As Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug kingpin who experiences the rise and fall that every drug dealer in the history of movies has, Mr. Washington isn’t filled with over-the-top bravura, like in his Oscar-winning turn for Training Day. Instead, he plays Lucas in broad strokes. He’s more Michael Corleone than Tony Montana. And while Russell Crowe seems woefully miscast, at once too hulking and intimidating to play the loser cop trying to bring Frank Lucas down, by the end his sweaty persistence brings to mind Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

When we’ll probably fall asleep: In addition to Messrs. Washington and Crowe, American Gangster is loaded with genre perfect character actors, from Deadwood‘s John Hawkes to Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA to Josh Brolin, hilariously badass (he kills a dog) while buried under a massive pushbroom mustache and thick Noo Yawk accent. Of them all, however, we love Cuba Gooding, Jr. the most. Long forgotten since winning an Oscar for Jerry Maguire, the hyperactive actor shows up for a couple of scenes as Frank Lucas’ nemesis, Nicky Barnes. About 85 minutes in, at 1:40 a.m., during a tete-a-tete at a strip club, Nicky gnashes his teeth and throws a drink while Frank smiles like the cat that ate the canary. Mr. Gooding, Jr. does more for his career those two minutes of screen time then he’s done in his last twenty movies combined. Suffice to say, he’s come a long way since Boat Trip.

Single Person’s Movie: American Gangster