The View From Here

FIRST LOOK -- Ridley Scott's American Gangster

Michael Bonner

After a week off, holed up in the Cotswolds since you ask, it's been a busy time for film screenings. I went to see The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford on Tuesday, this time on a proper 35mm print rather than the beta tape I saw a few months back, and tonight there's Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited that I'll hopefully blog about tomorrow.

Last night, though, our album reviews editor John Robinson and I went to see American Gangster, at close to three hours as epic as it gets, with Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington manfully chewing chunks out of the scenery in late Sixties/early Seventies' New York.

Ridley Scott, as a director, is someone I admire greatly. Admittedly this is an opinion based largely on Alien and, especially, Blade Runner, and for every great film, there's the clang of a bollock being dropped with Matchstick Men or A Good Year. Part of Scott's problem, I think, is that as a former ad director he's naturally more drawn to mood, style and the technique of film making, rather than the direction of actors. Kingdom Of Heaven, for instance, looked fantastic -- he really got into the box of CGI tricks for the battle sequences -- but whatever compelled him to cast the feckless Orlando Bloom in the lead was sheer madness. His constant returns to Blade Runner -- a tweak here, a new print there, a digital makeover, a new cut -- has turned it into the DVD equivalent of Dark Side Of The Moon, and what's apparently his Definitive Edition of that film is due out on DVD in December.

Anyway, when Scott works his best is when he can get on with the behind camera stuff and let good actors deal with the other bits. Which is fortunate, then, that he's got two on board for American Gangster. I should point out now that Allan has some fairly amusing views on Russell Crowe -- it stems, apparently, from the fact that Bud White is one of his favourite characters in literature and he thought Crowe got him completely wrong in LA Confidential. We're both agreed, though, that he's on cracking form in Master And Commander.

Crowe is something of a man's actor. Recalling his close friendship with Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, forged on the set of Gladiator, you sense he'd have been right at home back in the Sixties and Seventies, drinking and roistering away with the Harris/Burton breed of carousers. You could easily see him propping up a movie like The Wild Geese, for instance.

But Crowe does like to see himself as A Proper Actor these days, developing his range in movies like A Beautiful Mind (schizophrenic math's genius), Cinderella Man (washed up boxer) even A Good Year (City man goes native in rural France). They're all pretty below par movies, but taken on their own terms those central characters all offer plenty of meat for an actor.

He's actually pretty subdued in American Gangster, as NY Detective Richie Roberts, struggling to bring down Denzel's crime boss, Frank Lucas. His story plays out in parallel to Lucas', Roberts' marriage gradually falling apart and Lucas raises a successful empire.

In fact, both these actors are big enough to sustain their own narratives with equal weight, only meeting towards the end of the picture (it's not quite Al and Bob in Heat when they do, but hey).

Washington is never less than a compelling presence on screen. I never really quite got him until Training Day, where I'll happily wheel out an adjective like "incendiary" to describe his performance. Here, he's brooding, occasionally chilling, driven and prone to swift and shocking bursts of violence when he doesn't get his own way.

It's quite easy to see why American Gangster's got its 156 minute running time. It needs room for both these two characters' stories to breathe.

Scott's next is with Crowe also, Nottingham, about Robin Hood no less, with Crowe as the Sherriff. Quite why the world needs to see this, I don't know -- we've had quite enough versions of this story down the years. I'm far more interested in his movie *after* that (due 2009, according to the Interweb), an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's brilliant Western novel, Blood Meridian.

Scott once told me that he's always wanted to make a Western. As a kid, growing up around Newcastle, he used to go and watch oaters at his local cinema, and that pretty much got him into the movies. As a big fan of McCarthy, and Blood Meridian especially, it'll be interesting to see what he does with it. It's a violent, horrific story -- Peckinpah meets Bosch, about bounty hunters and killers and, unsurprisingly, something of a favourite round these parts.

American Gangster opens in the UK on November 16.


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