Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: American Gangster

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

In 1970s America, narcotics agent Richie Roberts works to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas, who is smuggling pure heroin into the country in military coffins returning from the Vietnam.

The black Goodfellas this is not. Ridley Scott is hailed on this film’s posters as the director of Gladiator. He’s also the director of GI Jane, Kingdom of Heaven and A Good Year to name just three of his super-turkeys from the last decade. This film has his usual striking visual quality, it’s very murkily lit and NYC looks very grimy and cold indeed. But American Gangster lacks energy, the analogy with Goodfellas practically screamed at us by the end sequence only reminds us just how dazzling Scorsese’s frenetic direction of that film really was. Such lethargy renders this film grotesquely long, the sort of running time that makes you keenly aware of absurdities, like why are all the hookers cutting Frank’s drugs topless or naked? It’s eventually lamely explained but it seems part of a drive by Scott to get as much gratuitous female nudity in to the film as he can manage. Is this Good Luck Chuck?!

Denzel Washington is as bad as he’s been in Inside Man, Out of Time, and all the other dreck he churns out while retaining a baffling reputation as a great actor. Russell Crowe, in a role with surprisingly little screen time, fares slightly better but despite playing a character of great professional integrity and personal dishevelment he looks like an actor going through the motions rather than exploring the possibilities of the part.  Josh Brolin, so good as the crazed Dr Block in last week’s Planet Terror, is much more committed as repellent bent cop Detective Trupo. The amount of police corruption portrayed in this film is really quite depressing. Scott uses it, in an effort as misguided as John Boorman’s attempts with Martin Cahill in The General, to valorise Frank Lucas. A psychopathic killer who pays lip service to taking care of Harlem while getting the whole borough hooked on cheap, potent heroin? Either pick someone else to mythologise or get a better scriptwriter.

Oscar-winning writer Steven Zaillian (an award the trailer boasts about far too much) won for a film Aaron Sorkin did an uncredited dialogue polish on while his previous film for Scott was co-written with legendary playwright David Mamet. His directorial debut, last year’s All the King’s Men which he also wrote, abundantly proved that, along with his problems with writing memorable dialogue, Zaillian has no idea of pacing. This story is just not interesting enough to sustain its bloated length while characters/plot devices like Carla Gugino’s shrill wife (divorcing Crowe’s emotionally distant cop) never convince as real people. The trailer for Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin precedes American Gangster and painfully highlights the utter vacuity of Zaillian’s dialogue in a film which all concerned obviously believe to be epic and meaningful but which is nothing of the sort.

1/5

September 21, 2019

From the Archives: 3:10 to Yuma

Another ransacking of the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers director James Mangold’s first collaboration with Christian Bale just as their second revs its engines for release.

Notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) is separated from his gang and captured by Civil War veteran and struggling rancher Dan Evans (Bale) who then volunteers to put Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison for $200. As Evans fights off the attacks of Wade’s pursuing gang a strange kinship forms between the two men.

If you didn’t know that James Mangold was the writer/director responsible for Copland, Girl Interrupted, Identity and Walk the Line you should remember his name after 3:10 to Yuma, as by remaking a classic western he has delivered one of the best films of 2007. Mangold has always drawn terrific performances from his casts and it is vital to note the absolutely top notch characterisation, down to the tiniest supporting roles, that distinguishes this film. Every person who steps across the screen convinces as a character with a rich history of their own. This is a western that combines the gritty realistic action of the recent Brosnan/ Neeson vehicle Seraphim Falls with the deeply satisfying human drama of Walk the Line. The fraught relationship between drought-stricken rancher Daniel Evans and his resentful teenage son William (Logan Lerman) drives the film every bit as much as the relationship between Daniel Evans and Ben Wade.

The casting of Russell Crowe in the role originally played by Glenn Ford was always going to be interesting. Russell Crowe can’t do outright charm (see A Good Year) in the way that old-school leading men like Glenn Ford could. Ford’s villain was almost indistinguishable from his usual shtick when playing heroes which was contrasted ironically with Van Heflin’s unheroic rancher. Russell Crowe can add charm to noble heroes like General Maximus and Captain Jack Aubrey and here he adds charm to the principled villainy of Ben Wade. William Evans insists Wade won’t let his gang kill his captors “Cos you’re not all bad”, “Yes, I am” replies Wade. This Wade is tougher but his introduction (sketching a falcon while his men attack a stagecoach) proves he’s lying, he does have a soft side. The celebrated flirtatious conversation with a barmaid that leads to Wade being caught is truncated and Wade kills people in this version but Crowe makes us root for him enough to still complicate the straight good/evil division.

Christian Bale is given a peg-leg to assure us Batman ain’t no hero here but doesn’t need that prop, the hurt in his eyes at his son’s wounding remarks show us a man deeply aware of his unheroic status. Mangold’s film improves on the original with pace and suspense and also has some wonderful moments of humour. X-3’s Ben Foster as Wade’s psychotic lieutenant Charlie Prince is a terrifying presence who Mangold skilfully uses to create dread and heighten anxiety for Evans’ fate. The thus inevitable blood-soaked finale is a violent departure from the charming ending of the original but it is necessary and pushes the film close to mythic Sergio Leone territory.

5/5

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