Anyone who visits here from time to time already knows that I often get way too excited about movies, way too long before they even approach the multiplex.
Why? Well, first because I just love reading and writing about movies, but second because, when I manage to believe all the hype I do my minuscule part to create, it makes it just that much more sweet when it turns out to be true.
It happened once this summer with "Ratatouille," which was even better than I could have imagined. And now it's happened with "American Gangster," a flick which it seems like I've been excited about for three years now and is so good that it's knocked Brad Bird's delightful movie right out of the top spot.
I tell you all that as a lead-in to this warning: This won't be a review as much as a rave, because I loved just about every minute of Ridley Scott's best movie yet (and I say that as someone who hasn't always liked his movies as much as the rest of the world; "Blade Runner" is just as good as everyone claims it is, but "Gladiator" was average at best in my book.)
So, what's so great about "American Gangster," for the few people out there who haven't seen it yet (it took in a rather whopping $46.3 million at the box office in week one.)
What I liked most was the pacing. As we're introduced to the slowly converging paths of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and do-gooder cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), Scott wisely keeps the scenes to no more than a couple of minutes each, and moves fluidly between the two worlds. Until the inevitable bullet barrage that brings it all crashing down, Scott never resorts to the shaky jump-cuts that the kids who have followed him use to substitute for real urgency, instead just letting the story unfold at it own pace. The final effect, while not quite - as Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter said - making its 2:20 seem like 40 minutes, is still a rousing tale very well told.
And just as much credit for that goes to screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who has worked with Scott previously on "Hannibal" and also managed long ago to write and direct another of my favorite movies, "Searching for Bobby Fischer." He and Scott make it clear through their actions rather than any way-too-wordy speeches that what bonds Lucas and Roberts is their moral code, even if they use that to rather different ends. It's what makes the ending, which still manages to be a bit jarring, easier to swallow.
But no great American gangster flick (and yes, I will go so far to put this one in the same arena with the first two "Godfather" movies or any of the great '30s movies and believe it will be able to hold its own) would be complete without its own "Is this the end of Rico?" moment. Scott's is admittedly rather cheesy, but it just worked for me. Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the movie, skip this sentence: For Lucas' character, being cuffed on the steps of his church, with his family being herded back inside so they won't have to watch, is just as ignominious an end as dying in the gutter.
Before I end this admittedly one-sided love letter to "American Gangster," a word or two about the casting is in order. At its center this is a very elaborately constructed movie about two men, and they will indeed square off again in February on Oscar night. By a nose, I'd have to give the edge to Denzel, who will certainly be taking home the first Best Actor statue he deserves, rather than awarded to make up for past omissions.
But the supporting cast as well was full of pleasant surprises. Idris Elba of "The Wire" makes an early appearance as one of Frank's rivals, and another HBO vet, John Hawkes, who played Sol Star on "Deadwood," is here as one Roberts' key recruits in his anti-drug crusade. Others who make the most of little screen time (and who I always like to see) include Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Joe Morton (wearing the world's cheesiest wig) and, in one of his best appearances outside of the movies of Spike Lee, Roger Guenveur Smith as Lucas' cousin and connection to the heroin that would build his empire.
Actors who have for years now only annoyed me on the big screen, Cuba Gooding Jr. and T.I., also manage to turn in solid performances (perhaps a fork in the road and a return to the right direction for Mr. Gooding, who is sensational as rival gangster Nicky Barnes.) And finally, a word of apology to Ruby Dee, who plays Lucas' mother: I thought you had died shortly after your husband, the great Ossie Davis, as happens with so many devoted couples, but I was certainly happy to find out I was wrong this time.
If none of this convinces you to go see this one, there's probably nothing else I can say, so I'll just cut this off and head out to see "Into the Wild." Peace out.